Book Review: On Spine of Death by Tamara Berry

In Tamara Berry's On Spine of Death, a prospective bookstore owner learns that renovations can be murder. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

Best-selling author Tess Harrow is busy renovating the dilapidated general store she inherited from her grandfather while also conducting research for her latest novel. Always one to kill two birds with one stone, she figures she can get her teenage daughter Gertrude to leave her tied to a chair in the store’s suitably creepy basement while their handyman works overhead. Despite the skepticism of Gertie (and the handyman, and pretty much everyone else whom she’s told this idea,) Tess is sure that she, like the character she’s envisioning for her next novel, can escape her bonds in a timely manner, at least until an unexpected problem rears its head:

“I wasn’t counting on rats,” Tess muttered as she started to once again saw her wrists against a sharp edge at the back of the chair. “No one said anything about rats.”

 

Even as she spoke, she knew that the woman in her book–codename Magdalene–would be encountering rats inside her prison. Tess Harrow, renowned thriller writer, was something of a legend when it came to using real-life incidents to fuel her fiction. Her last book, Fury In The Forest had been based on her own experience finding a dead body in the pond behind the rustic cabin she now called home. The book was already in its sixth printing and showed no sign of flagging.

Tess is about to get a lot more fodder for her writing than expected though, when the basement ceiling suddenly falls in on her. While she isn’t quite buried in the debris, something else certainly was. Someone else, rather, as not just one but two full sets of human bones rain down on her with the rubble.

When the bodies are identified as belonging to women who went missing from Winthrop years earlier, the town rumor mill starts churning at full speed, spreading the word that Tess’ grandfather was a serial killer. Sheriff Victor Boyd, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the hero of Tess’ books except in the crucial matter of being professional to a fault, wants her to leave the detective work entirely up to himself and the rest of the local police. Luckily, the rather morbid Gertie already has plans to take up an internship in a place where she can help her mother stay up to date with any developments in the case:

Tess knew it behooved her, as an involved and loving parent who only wanted what was best for her daughter, to put up a fight. There were too many potential horrors in a place like the morgue, too many ways for Gertrude’s life to be irrevocably altered.

 

But when she spoke, it wasn’t to berate the girl.

 

“Gertie, do you have any idea what this means?”

 

Gertrude grinned. When she smiled like that, the sunshine radiating as if out of her soul, Tess knew that nothing in the world could be as bad as it seemed. “It means you have an inside man at the morgue[,” her daughter said].

Ordinarily, this mother-daughter team-up would be a nearly unstoppable force, but it’s only when their old family friend, acclaimed horror writer Peter Oblonsky, drops everything to come stay with them that they really start making progress on the case. He’s quick to point out the similarities between what they’ve uncovered and the plot of a book Tess once blurbed. She’s somewhat embarrassed to admit that she never actually found time to read the novel she was promoting, but once she finally does, she can’t deny the parallels. Worse, if the book is to be taken as a guide to what’s happening in Winthrop, it indicates that the sheriff has a much closer tie to the murders than anyone anticipated, a tie that could change the burgeoning romantic relationship between Tess and Victor forever.

Tamara Berry is one of my favorite cozy writers, and this second installment in her By The Book mystery series only cements that status. The themes of this mystery are cleverly woven throughout the clue-sprinkled narrative, as Tess expands her circle of friends and confidants (and co-conspirators) in her quest to find the killer, clear her grandfather’s name, and protect the man she’s growing to love. The hint of paranormal activity was also perfectly done, and I absolutely loved the introduction of himbo Jake. Funny, smart and moving, On Spine of Death is a terrific addition to Ms Berry’s oeuvre. I can’t wait to read more.

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