Taken by the Wind by Ellen Hart is the 21st installment of the Jane Lawless series, set in and around contemporary Minneapolis (available October 8, 2013).
Jane Lawless’ friend Andrew asks for her help when his 12 year-old son and another boy go missing after a camping trip. Andrew is recently separated from his partner, Eric, and the entire book is rife with the tension that comes with anti-gay sentiments in small communities.
One of the strengths of Ellen Hart’s work is that these mysteries are not so “cozy” that they become overly reliant on the Cute Factor. No talking cats, nobody running a needle shop or a bakery. It doesn’t have that Jessica Fletcher brand of lightness. (This lightness has a place for me, as a reader, but sometimes it can be so light it just… floats away.) But at the same time, neither is it overly gruesome, or particularly dark, despite the endangered children at the core of the plot. Hart strikes a delicate balance between the Cozy and the Hardboiled. Jane’s a professional detective and she works like one, despite the “cozy” tone of an amateur.
Without a great deal of graphic violence or bloodshed, Hart manages to create a real sense of unease. She is particularly adept at defining and managing the complex relationships between her characters, and using that to create tension for the reader. Here, two men who are long-time partners, though they have recently split, have tensions running high as they look for their missing son. It’s not long before the Familiar Fight starts again:
They were like dueling phonograph records. The needle— their conversations— might slip and slide around for a while, but eventually they always fell back into the groove. “Can you see that we’re in some sort of crazy blame loop that neither of us can climb out of?”
The phone in the back pocket of his jeans began to ring.
Sighing, he said, “I better take it.”
He said hello and listened. When he heard nothing but silence on the other end he said, “Is anybody there?”
“I’m calling about your boy,” came a man’s voice.
Eric felt his pulse heat up. “Do you know where he is?”
“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“You’ve got no business being a parent. That kid of yours doesn’t have a chance. He’ll grow up just like you. Sick. Twisted. You gays make me want to hurl.”
“Who is this?”
“You should be run out of the state— out of the country. Maybe I’ll get a posse together and come visit you one of these nights. I know where you live. Better keep your doors locked is all I can say.” The line disconnected.
See what she did there? The argument between Eric and Andrew lulled me into a sense of “Oh, I know what this scene’s all about” and then BAM, we get hit with a TRULY sinister phone call.
This scene does a bit of double-duty, something else Hart is very good at, and I also like that she manages this in such a balanced way. Without being a coming-out story, or a “Look guys, the Gays are just like us” story, she also manages to not sweep sexuality under the rug.
As our gumshoe Jane divides her time between sleuthing and being a restaurateur—one of the fathers of the missing boy is in the same line—there is no shortage of Eating and Drinking, although not in the mad abundance I tend to require of two of my favorite things in novels:
“You say you’re hungry.” Food was something Jane could work with.
“How about you fix us one of those trays . . . like you do. With the radishes and butter and coarse salt.”
“You actually like that?”
Avi kissed her, then stared into Jane’s eyes. Jane was ready for more, but Avi stopped her. “Let’s have some wine.”
“Wine is good.”
“Oh, and do you have any of that stuff you make with chicken livers and brandy?”
“Yeah, and that nice stinky cheese and garlic sausage. I mean, there should be a few perks when you date a restaurateur, yes?”
Out of context, what might not be clear is that this passage is also about deepening our understanding of the two womens’ relationship. It’s new, one that came on quickly as a surprise for Jane, and they’re both still a little tentative, a little unsure of their compatibility.
And I also feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but I really like that the LGBTI characters are … actual characters, with wants and desires and motivations and agency. (My hesitation comes from the fact that I think this is just Common Decency, rather than some kind of pinnacle of achievement. But it sadly happens so rarely, and representation really does matter, so I feel the need to mention it). They’re not window dressing or stereotypes, and their relationships are treated like they are just as “real” as the hetero relationships. This is no joke. If your child goes missing, your child goes missing.
So all in all, Taken By The Wind is a success: it takes the best parts of the cozy and the hardboiled, and in addition to a cracking good puzzle, Ellen Hart gives us characters we can believe in and care about.
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Amy Eller Lewis is a writer and Library Fairy in Southern New England. She works at one of the oldest libraries in the country, www.providenceathenaeum.org which is definately haunted. Follow her on Twitter @amyellerlewis or on Tumblr: scriptoriana.tumblr.com.