Fresh Meat: Hell on Wheels by Sue Ann Jaffarian

Hell on Wheels by Sue Ann Jaffarian is the 9th cozy mystery in the Odelia Grey series, and this time a game of quadriplegic rugby takes a turn towards murder (available November 8, 2014).

Plus size paralegal Odelia Grey has always been an unusual cozy heroine. Rather than a small town and a super close family, her adventures take place across Los Angeles, with her relatives only becoming closer in the later books, and instead of reveling in crime solving, she’s a reluctant corpse magnet with an often contentious but extremely close relationship with her boss, Mike Steele. Oh, and her husband, Greg Stevens, is a paraplegic in a wheelchair. It’s a series that delves into assorted underworlds, but where it isn’t always easy to pick out the good guys and bad guys, where a trained killer might secretly have a heart of gold, where the office is a daytime home and community center as much as a workplace, and where family is as much about chosen family as biology.

In her latest, Sue Ann Jaffarian introduces us to the cutthroat world of quad (quadriplegic) rugby, an intense sport played by wheelchair-bound athletes. The game Odelia and Greg witness turns violent when Peter Tanaka, who’s not too popular, has just picked a fight with Greg as well as one of his opponents, the couple’s friend Rocky Henderson, and chaos ensues.

Greg was helping me down from the bleachers when the whistle blew to restart the game. A few seconds later, pandemonium broke out on the court. The ball had been passed to Peter, who was near the sidelines in front of the bleachers to our left. Rocky had followed the ball, but instead of playing defense, he threw a punch at Peter as soon as he’d gotten close enough. The people on the bleachers got to their feet and started yelling. Those on the ground, both standing and in wheelchairs, surged forward almost onto the court. I stepped back up on the bleachers to get a better view.

On the court, Rocky had Peter Tanaka’s Viper shirt grasped in his curled hand. He had pulled Peter close and was punching him in the face with his elbow and forearm, using whatever he had to pummel the obnoxious player, who was fighting back. Then suddenly Peter stopped fighting, and his arms dropped limply at his side.

Both coaches were trying to intervene, but Rocky’s rage was over the edge as he continued to punch Peter, who was no longer trying to defend himself. In trying to pull the players and their chairs apart, Peter’s wheelchair tipped over. Rocky seized the moment.

When Tanaka dies and Henderson is the prime suspect, of course Odelia wants to help clear her friend, and even though she doesn’t plan to get herself mixed up with murder, her natural curiosity always wins out, and this time is no exception. One of the strengths of this series is how deeply personal the cases become. Jaffarian also expertly ties in subplots, and calls back to previous books, raising the stakes for the characters and dedicated readers by pushing Odelia into often uncomfortable situations, such as this one in which she agrees to look into a shady business deal for another of her bosses:

I looked over at Fanny Tobin’s table again. I had to be mistaken. The cold hand clutching my gut and squeezing the life from me told me I wasn’t. The hair was different—longer; a softer, lighter color; and better styled—and she was wearing makeup, but it was her. It couldn’t be, I told myself, trying to convince my eyes they were mistaken. But it was. And if I had any doubt, it was dispelled when she turned her head my way and saw me, giving a short double-take. Her face morphed from surprise to curiosity to amusement as her smallish eyes settled on me, clinging to my face and suffocating me like plastic wrap. She smiled, showing even, gleaming white teeth. Dollars to donuts she’d had an expensive whitening job and possibly some cap work done on them since the last time we’d met.

My first instinct was to grab Zee and run from the restaurant, bypassing the toothy maître d’, the trip to the bakery—hell, even the elevator. Maybe we could pull off a Butch and Sundance move and jump from the balcony to save time. My second instinct told my first one to hold the phone; it wanted to know what in the hell was going on and wasn’t about to leave without an answer. The two instincts went to war in my brain, with the second calling the first a chicken—and the first one clucking in response.

What sets Odelia apart is that she almost always moves toward her fears, often explicitly disobeying her nearest and dearest, not out of ignorance of the potential danger involved, but out of the same curiosity and desire to do right that repeatedly gets her in trouble. There’s nothing delicate about her personality, but she can be emotionally vulnerable, and often it’s her sentimentality that leads her down dangerous if fascinating paths. Indeed, in Hell on Wheels, she is the one who keeps pushing Greg to pursue the case, even when the outcome won’t necessarily help their friend, and her pursuit causes tension in their relationship. Odelia can’t ignore any nagging loose ends in her personal life either, and when her cranky boss winds up in a bar fight he won’t talk about, she also manages to sleuth out the truth, going above and beyond her technical duties.

Hell on Wheels has plenty of plot twists that will keep readers guessing, and paints a vivid world of quad rugby, hidden crimes and affairs, and backstabbing that will be eye-opening to most readers.

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Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance and erotica writer, and editor of over 50 anthologies, including The Big Book of Orgasms69 Sexy StoriesOnly You: Erotic Romance for Women; Serving Him: Sexy Stories of Submission and others. She tweets @raquelita and blogs at Lusty Lady.

Read all of Rachel Kramer Bussel's posts for Criminal Element.

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