Fresh Meat: The Old Deep and Dark by Ellen Hart

The Old Deep and Dark by Ellen Hart is the 22nd mystery featuring P.I. Jane Lawless as she investigates a string of murders at an old theater (available October 7, 2014).

I have a friend who hates seeing a Cast of Characters at the beginning of a novel. She feels it means either A) there are too many characters or B) she won’t be able to tell them apart without going back to the description.

The Old Deep and Dark contains just the right amount of characters. Each one is distinct and fully fleshed out. However, the plot involves an old theater in the midst of being renovated by one of the main characters. So a Dramatis Personae, as it were, fits with the theme.

Cordelia Thorn is a great character among many good characters. She’s larger than life in every way. This is an older woman who is completely at home with who she is. Outspoken but kind. Determined to get her own way, but always alert to her friends’ needs.

The recently purchased Thorn Lester Playhouse is a character as well. Built in 1903, the building has a storied past. While work progresses on the building and Cordelia begins to solidify plans for the play that will be performed at the unveiling, she discovers that her new baby comes with ghosts. Cordelia fills in her friend, Jane Lawless, a restaurateur and newly-minted private investigator.

“Don’t you want to know why I’m here?” asked Cordelia.

“I assume you’re going to tell me.”

Leaning close to the desk, she whispered, “Ghosts. The theater’s lousy with them. Isn’t that fabulous?”

“It certainly makes my day,” said Jane, folding the form into thirds and slipping it into an envelope.

“I already knew about the cat.”

“A ghost cat?”

“It bit me a couple times. Landed in my lap once. But the real news is . . .” She glanced dramatically over each shoulder. “Gilbert and Hilda King. They were murdered. In the basement.”

Jane looked up. “Murdered?”

“In the basement.”

“Who were Gilbert and Hilda King?”

“They used to own the theater. It was a gangland hit. Because of Gilbert’s gambling debts. Or, maybe because of the speakeasy.”

“What speakeasy?” Jane was beginning to get lost in all the unconnected details.

“The one they ran out of the basement. Back in the twenties and early thirties. Have you ever looked around down there?” she asked, sotto voce.

“No.”

As it happens, and one would expect, Gilbert and Hilda aren’t the only victims of murder in the book. Jane and Cordelia need to connect the dots to catch the culprit and prevent more killings.

Jane, too, is a wonderful character. She owns and runs a restaurant and is co-owner of a private investigating firm. I’m thinking part of the reason she went after her license has to do with the events of the previous books. It also gives her an excuse to spend more time with her father, Ray Lawless, a prominent attorney. Jane is trying to live life on her own terms, but she has several obstacles to overcome before she gets there.

In addition to the theater and its history, the Deere family plays a big part in the story. Jordan Deere is a well-loved country music singer and songwriter. Kit Deere, his wife, is an actress and Cordelia’s first choice for lead in the debut play. She’s banking on the fact that Kit got her start in the Thorn Lester Playhouse to sway the actress. But Kit has come to town for a family reunion of sorts. Decades old family secrets are about to be revealed to the world. Not everyone is happy about the prospect. Actually, almost no one is happy about it.

Turning around so that she wouldn’t have to see Beverly’s puckered face, Kit luxuriated in the feel of Jordan’s strong arms around her. She loved men. Absolutely adored them. Couldn’t ever seem to get enough male attention, even at her age, which had been a periodic problem in her marriage. As she pulled back, she saw Jordan wink at Beverly. He did it to annoy her. It always

worked.

“So, what do you think?” asked Jordan, holding Kit at arm’s length.

“About that book?”

“What else?”

“I think you’re out of your freakin’ mind.” She pulled away, needing to put some distance between them. “All I can say is, I’m glad the kids haven’t seen it.”

A muscle in his face twitched. “I sent a copy to everyone. Even Badass Beverly over there.”  Another wink.

Kit was almost too stunned to speak. “You’re . . . a madman. Don’t you think I should have had something to say about that?”

This is the 22nd book in the Jane Lawless mystery series. When I realized how far into the list this book was, I had some fears of my own. I wondered if I might be lost stepping into a series with such long-established characters and relationships. A far less generous fear was that the author might be coasting at this point. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen.

Neither fear was justified. The characters are, as I said before, well-rounded. Flawed, smart, thoughtful, funny, all different sizes and shapes. And the plot is tight. A whole passel of people arrive in town. Most are coming back after a long absence. Of course, there are people who stayed in town, and many of them have histories with those who have returned. So just about anyone could have done it. So much more fun than a regular cast of characters plus a few newbies. Not too hard to figure things out with that configuration.

Ellen Hart kept me guessing. I had a pretty good idea about who the victim might be, but even there I kept changing my mind. Especially since the family secrets were also doled out. And it wasn’t done in a way that made me feel like she was holding back. Things were revealed in a natural sequence. Nothing felt forced.

I have to admit I didn’t get to the right solution until just before her sleuths figured it out. That’s not easy to do. As a reader I don’t want to figure it out in the first couple chapters. Even worse, though, is a solution that seems to drop out of the sky. Like Goldilocks, I thought this one was just right.

The 22nd book in the series. That means I have to read twenty-one books before Ellen Hart’s next Jane Lawless Mystery comes out. Oh, and she also has eight Sophie Greenway Mysteries. My poor night stand isn’t going to hold up to that many books. I guess I’ll have to start stacking them on the floor.

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Debbie Meldrum reads just about everything she can get her hands on. She was the short fiction editor for Apollo's Lyre and the Editor in Chief of the Pikes Peak Writers NewsMag. She's currently putting the finishing touches on her first novel.

Read all of Debbie Meldrum's posts for Criminal Element.

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