A Small Hill to Die On by Elizabeth J. Duncan is the fourth book in the Penny Brannigan traditional mystery series (available October 30, 2012).
That was when I discovered that in 2008 Ms. Duncan became the first Canadian writer to win the St. Martins/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel competition. The winning book, The Cold Light of Mourning, is the first of the Penny Brannigan books set in Llanelen, Wales. I must confess that I liked Penny right away. She is a strong and independent woman who has joined with business partner Victoria Hopkirk to renovate a decrepit old building and turn it into a thriving business as a very modern spa catering to the women of the village.
I am delighted that the fourth book of this series, A Small Hill to Die On, is finally here. This book doesn’t start off at the leisurely pace I’ve come to expect of Penny Brannigan. Instead we start out with poor Penny suffering from insomnia, Victoria clamoring for a vacation in Tuscany now that the spa is up and running, and, oh my, a competitor planning to open a nail and tanning salon right in the village. Fortunately a warmish January Sunday puts Penny in the mood for a “stretch and sketch” so, along with her dog Trixxi and her friend Alwynne Gwilt, Penny sets off for a ramble to find a nice spot for a relaxing hour or two of sketching some of the breathtaking scenery that surrounds the village. Soon after, Trixxi runs off, barking and demanding attention.
As Penny approached, she saw that a shallow, dry ditch ran alongside the stone fence and Trixxi was standing in it. She let out a loud bark, looked at Penny with puzzled concern, and then, using both paws, began to dig.
As Trixxi dislodged a loose pile of brittle, frosted brown leaves, a few fell away, exposing a grayish-blue hand, its fingers frozen in a stiff curl. But it was the fingernails, with their snakeskin pattern, that sent a sickening feeling slithering through Penny’s gut.
“Good girl,” she said when she reached Trixxi, and with one hand she reached down and, grasping Trixxi’s collar, pulled her away from her find. With her other hand, she reached into her pocket for her mobile.
Have I mentioned Penny’s romantic interest, the debonair Detective Chief Inspector Gareth Davies? He appears to be ready to move their relationship closer while Penny seems to resist a bit. In the meantime DCI Davies would be happy enough if Penny would just stay out of trouble during the murder investigation, which he knows is unlikely given that she and Trixxi have discovered the dead body.
Davies gave her one of his looks.
“Now you’re going to let us handle this, aren’t you? There’s nothing here that involves you, so there’s no need for you to go poking around.” He raised his eyebrows at her. “You’ll give your statement and then stay out of it. Agreed?”
Penny nodded and rose from the sofa. She started toward the kitchen and then turned around.
“Do you think she was killed there or was she killed someplace else and the body dumped?”
“I knew it wouldn’t last.”
“The pathologist isn’t sure and says he won’t know until he’s done the postmortem. He’ll know more then, but he says it looks as if she was beaten somewhere else and died as she was being moved or she died on that small hill.”
At that moment, we, along with the apprehensive Detective Chief Inspector Davies, know that Penny will be in the thick of amateur sleuthing until the dreadful murder is solved. And I can tell you that Gareth has good reason to worry about Penny’s safety as there is something sinister afoot in the normally bucolic village of Llanelen.
Once again, Elizabeth Duncan has hit the sweet spot of cozy mysteries—appealing characters in a wonderfully idyllic setting, with a dastardly crime upsetting things but only for the moment. Cozy lovers, this is a book that is not to be missed.
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Terrie Farley Moran’s recent collection of short stories, THE AWARENESS and other deadly tales, is currently available in e-format for the Nook and the Kindle. Terrie blogs at Women of Mystery and you can look forward to her short story “Jake Says Hello” in the December 2012 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
Read all posts by Terrie Farley Moran for Criminal Element.