Murder at the P & Z by Dorothy H. Hayes is a traditional mystery featuring a schoolteacher-turned-reporter-turned-amateur sleuth (available April 1, 2013).
It’s 1983 and hardworking reporter, Carol Rossi, is one of the busiest people in the small town of Wilton, Connecticut. One of her regular haunts is the local planning and zoning department, where there’s always a chance for disagreement and controversy.
Rossi’s paper, The Wilton Weekly, keeps the whole town in the loop as plans are made for new buildings, malls, and other projects that require permits. She’s been visiting the offices of Planning & Zoning twice a week since she got her job. Her journalism award was the result of an in-depth article about the need to protect local well water, which endeared her to the environmentally friendly staff.
In the midst of Rossi’s routine days comes a surprise that pulls her from her home after her workday is completed. Wilton has its first murder in 86 years and Rossi’s editor gives her the assignment. Her initial excitement turns into full-blown grief when she discovers the victim is her good friend from the P&Z offices. She vows to find the murderer.
Surprisingly, Rossi doesn’t get much support in her quest. The police are happy to accept the obvious ruling of a robbery/mugging gone bad. But Rossi believes it was more of an execution-style murder with props added to change the perception.
Her job as reporter and deeper access to the case through her boyfriend/police officer mean Rossi keeps finding conflicting stories along the way to the truth. When a second murder occurs involving staff at the P&Z, Rossi knows the situation is no longer just about local politics and permits.
This book has a complicated and satisfying plot line. I was constantly making guesses and coming up wrong. It seems an easy story on the surface but as Rossi discovers, there are never easy answers to the difficult questions. But like any good heroine, nothing stops Rossi from ferreting out the truth. She insists on knowing who murdered her friend and won’t stop until she finds out, even if it means her own life is in danger.
Dorothy H. Hayes did a good job of creating strong, compelling characters. Not only is Rossi’s boyfriend a good detective who doesn’t flinch at digging for the truth, he’s an animal rescuer who has a lovely menagerie in his barn and unlike people they all manage to get along.
As a former reporter, Dorothy had no trouble taking us through the step-by-step process a good news seeker uses to present all the facts in a story. Since the novel takes place before the development of all the technology we have at our fingertips today, Rossi had to use old-fashioned methods—the phone and face-to-face questioning. I worked for a variety of newspapers through the years, and it’s not as easy to provide accurate articles to fill all those empty spaces as you might think.
When a good friend of the victim asked to talk to Rossi off the record, the intrepid reporter knows she’s making some real progress.
She combed her fingers through her cropped hair, taking a minute to think.
“My impression at first was that he wanted to get a clean start someplace else. Harrison just wanted to have fun, enjoy his retirement. But then Maddy told me she was frightened, that she thought she was being followed.” She shook her head as she relived that conversation with her departed friend.
“Is there something else?” I asked, noticing how nervous Ann was becoming.
“Then Maddy told me she told Harrison about the maps as soon as she discovered the discrepancy. That’s when she started to be scared.” Her nervousness increased as she spoke. She folded her hands to keep them from twitching.
“What are you not telling me, Ann? It’s okay,” I encouraged her.
“Maddy told me she thought somebody was following her those last two weeks,” she said. “Then Maddy heard from Harrison that he’d be back here on Monday. He was supposed to meet her at Cider Mill on Tuesday. I guess Harrison didn’t have a car. She told me she wanted to take him to Friendly’s and talk to him about the maps over a cup of coffee. Rossi, that was the night she was murdered.”
Ann had just confirmed my theory that Maddy had planned to meet Harrison at Cider Mill. I heard myself groan.
“Ann, I know Maddy told you this in confidence, but this is a fact that you must tell the police, that she was meeting Harrison at Cider Mill.”
“I did,” she said with bulging, indignant eyes. “I told the Chief, but he said it only proves that Harrison wasn’t the last person to see Maddy alive. She never got to the school, he said. He promised to check it out, to find out if Harrison was supposed to meet her. But how? Maddy didn’t tell anybody else. Harrison will deny it."
Rossi struggles with her story and her search for justice as the leads become harder and harder to find. The lies, misconceptions, and secrets of small-town leadership force Rossi to look outside her usual sources to find an anchor for her story. Unfortunately, those shadowy figures lurking on the edges of Wilton don’t want her meddling.
Thank goodness when I was a reporter I only did feature stories and profiles. I wouldn’t want to have to deal with the people Rossi does in this wonderful mystery.
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Leigh Neely is a former journalist and editor who now writes fiction fulltime. She and her writing partner, Jan Powell, are anticipating the release of their novel, Second Nature by Neely Powell, in late spring. She also writes for the popular blogs, womenofmystery.net and for neelypowell.wordpress.com. Her short story, “A Vampire in Brooklyn” is in the anthology Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices.