Dead Madonna

Dead Madonna_VictoriaHouston_719005

“MORALLY FLEXIBLE”

3 STARS

Doc Osborne is busy fulfilling his youngest grandchild’s birthday wishes. He has bought Cody a custom-fitted spinning rod and reel combination and is taking him out alone on their first true fishing trip. Well, they’re not exactly alone. Cody’s older sister, Mason, has attached herself to them, albeit from a short distance as she is in her kayak. But she is quite busy exhibiting middle-child syndrome as she attempts to belittle every success her brother achieves while extolling her own successes. She is also repeatedly bragging about some neat “pirate treasure” she has found while kayaking a small channel off one of the major lakes in the area.

Cody has just caught his first fish when Doc spots Lew Ferris, Loon Lake’s Chief of Police and his girlfriend, on his dock trying to get his attention. It seems she has two fatalities on her hands, and she needs Doc’s presence as deputy coroner. One of the deaths is definitely a homicide, a new widow bludgeoned to death with an antique lamp. The other is probably a death by misadventure as the body has been found wedged under a party boat that slipped its mooring and grounded on a mud bank.

Leaving the children with Ray Pradt, Doc and Lew quickly head out to view the murder scene. Not only is the widow’s skull crushed, she has extensive lacerations and deep puncture wounds all over her face and neck. As soon as the CSI team is in place, Doc and Lew move on to the site of the boating accident.

There are no roads close to the site and, by the time they have boated to the area, a heavy west wind has risen, pounding the boat farther into the mud. After considerable effort, they are able to dislodge the craft just enough to retrieve the body. And when they do, Doc and Lew find the same lacerations and puncture wounds on this victim’s face as they found on the widow’s. Apparently, this is not a case of death by misadventure.

Now Doc and Lew must find the real connection between two women who had apparently never met and who had died by different means – one by blunt force trauma, the other by strangulation. The only connection they have now is that both women were mutilated post-mortem by the same weapon, a muskie gaff. And this connection means that the same person probably murdered both women.

Victoria Houston’s 8th entry in her Loon Lake cozy mystery series is more convoluted than her previous entries. It is also more emotionally focused on the present rather than on the past, as has been the case in previous novels. As usual, Houston makes it fairly easy for the reader to decide the identity of the villain but makes the motivation and the opportunity more difficult to ascertain.

Essentially, the reader is backhandedly omniscient on this one and must sit back waiting for the clues we already have to catch up to Doc and Lew. And this time, the tension is built, not by confusion over the identity of the killer, but by worry over whether both Lew and Doc can survive the killer’s insanity.

Unfortunately, Houston’s disregard for demographic and chronological consistency between novels is again obvious. As far as chronology is concerned, the dates in this book don’t jibe with the dates in the previous novel. The time span between major events in Doc’s life that are reviewed by synopsis don’t exactly match with previous books either. And now Ray is back to being the six-foot-six inch man he was repeatedly described as in the first novel after being six-five for the last six books.

But, even more unfortunate, Houston has reverted to her use of a save-by-unusual-means to resolve the crisis. While her device is not exactly a deus ex machina requiring a severe suspension of disbelief, it is still a real “coincidence” that the right person and the right equipment are in just the right place at just the right time.

However, on a positive note, before the book is over, you can replace three concepts in your vocabulary with one new catch phrase. Now you can euphemistically describe a person thought to be sexually promiscuous, a serial dater or a violent offender as being “morally flexible.”

Cover Art From Goodreads

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