Book Review: The Cider Shop Rules by Julie Anne Lindsey

In the next installment of Julie Anne Lindsey's Cider Shop Mystery series, Winona Mae Montgomery and her Granny Smythe’s cider shop is flourishing, but with the fall season comes a fatal harvest...

I continue to admire Julie Anne Lindsey’s utter mastery of the craft of storytelling here with this third installment of her Cider Shop mystery series. Absorbing and believable, these mysteries depict an imperfect but relatable heroine who loves her West Virginia home of Blossom Valley so much that she’ll do almost anything to protect it from a recent plague of killers, no matter the risk to her personal well being or to her romantic prospects.

Granted, it’s hardly Winnie Mae Montgomery’s fault that an escaped convict with an axe to grind against new Sheriff Colton Wise has fixated on the idea of hurting her as being the easiest way to get to the lawman. Winnie and Colton aren’t dating or anything—despite her occasional wistful thoughts of romance—but the arrival of Colton’s equally handsome brother Blake certainly has Winnie questioning her relationship with the aloof sheriff. 

She’s not the only one with misgivings though. While it’s pretty standard in cozy mysteries for the heroine’s amateur sleuthing to annoy local law enforcement, The Cider Shop Rules brings up one of the most cogent justifications for a cop’s unhappiness, as Winnie eagerly presses Colton for confirmation as to whether their independent inquiries are tracking:

“Did her stories match?”

 

Colton examined me carefully. “They did, but since you’re pushing, I’ve got to know. Why did you go to see her? I’d just asked you to leave this alone, and you’d agreed. Then you went back on your own word as soon as I left.” He heaved a long, tired sigh. “I don’t like being lied to, Winnie. You get away with a lot because you’ve got a big heart and good intentions, but the cute factor has worn out on you playing private detective. And to be honest, I’m having a hard time justifying a friendship with someone I can’t trust.”

Hurtful as this is, Winnie knows his criticism is justified. As much as she wants to focus on running the cider shop attached to her grandmother’s apple orchard, she can’t help meddling. It’s not like she doesn’t have a personal interest in Colton’s latest case either. Her routine pick up of supplies from the Potter’s pumpkin farm ends with the grisly discovery of a slain Jacob Potter in the bed of her antique truck. With certain townsfolk of Blossom Valley urging her to investigate, it’s hard not to get involved, or to avoid being spooked when various threatening messages start showing up on her doorstep soon after. But are they from Jacob’s murderer or from Colton’s stalker? And will Winnie evade one killer only to fall into the waiting arms of the other?

Densely layered and thoughtful, this novel depicts two intertwined mystery narratives against the backdrop of fall in West Virginia, with farm festivals and a historical reenactment of John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. The question of park conservation and wildlife management is also an important part of the narrative, though Winnie has her suspicions as to why her ex-boyfriend Hank Donovan is suddenly so interested in the cause after he starts railing against local poaching:

Poachers were the worst. It wasn’t as if the deer stood a chance against a hunter with a gun to start with, but poachers took it a step further. What ever happened to the thrill of the hunt? The challenge? Skills like tracking? I put a pin in my mental tirade as something else came to mind. “How’d you see the [poachers’] corn and tree stands? Were you out hiking?” I asked, trying to imagine Hank in the woods by choice.

 

“Satellites,” he said. “Everything’s visible with satellite imagery.”

 

“Why are you looking at satellite images of our town? And while I agree poaching is wrong, I’m going to repeat my previous question. Why do you care?”

Unsurprisingly, Hank has his ulterior motives, but it’s good to see his friendship with Winnie continue to strengthen, even as she becomes more entangled with the handsome Wise brothers. The relationships and Winnie’s interior life are presented with just as much care as the thrilling mysteries, and it’s a genuine delight to see her continue to grow as a person with each book in the series. I wouldn’t necessarily start here if you’re new to the Cider Shop books, but the previous novels are a wonderful showcase of Ms. Lindsey’s writing and well worth your time as well.

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