Dead of Winter by Wendy Corsi Staub is the third book in the Lily Dale Mysteries series (available November 7, 2017).
New York Times bestseller Wendy Corsi Staub is a veritable powerhouse. With more than 80 novels to her name (and a few aliases), she has proved reliable among genres including psychological suspense, young adult, chick lit, romance, horror, and media tie-in. One of her most recent endeavors is a cozy mystery series set in the real-life spiritual community of Lily Dale, New York; she previously mined this territory for a four-book YA saga as well as an adult novel, In the Blink of an Eye (2002). Her newest, Dead of Winter, follows Nine Lives (2015) and Something Buried, Something Blue (2016).
Mid-December: Recent widow Bella Jordan has her hands full. In addition to being a single parent to her six-year-old son, Max, she’s responsible for overseeing Valley View Manor—the inn that became their unlikely sanctuary following a fated encounter with a pregnant tabby, Chance the Cat, that led them to Lily Dale. With Christmas looming and finances tight, she’s taken on additional projects around the home to earn some extra money in hopes of giving Max a memorable holiday. It’s while caulking the new kitchen backsplash that Bella hears a chilling scream from the area Cassadaga Lake; looking out the window to investigate, she sees something—somebody—on the water. Little does Bella know that she, too, has been seen.
Through an act of happenstance, the likes of which are not uncommon in “the Dale”—this time, the neighbor boy Jiffy (Max’s best friend) unwittingly interrupts a prowler while searching for his black cat, Sanchez—Bella is spared an encounter with a killer. But when she discovers a dead body washed up at the water’s edge the next morning, it becomes clear that this seemingly idyllic town is once again being plagued by something sinister.
Adding to the growing sense of dread is Jiffy’s subsequent disappearance; though prone to impetuousness, he wouldn’t deliberately cause a panic. His premonitions of being kidnapped come snowfall, as told to Max, appear to have actualized. A missing child in blizzard conditions is certainly cause for concern, yet Bella can’t help but wonder if this latest occurrence is somehow related to the unsolved murder.
A science teacher by training, Bella is governed by logic rather than intuition; consequently, she’s frustrated when others—including Jiffy’s young, distractible mother, Misty Starr, who herself had a vision of her son’s peril—rely on guidance from Spirit through meditation rather than taking more decisive action. Even the local authorities, led by dour Lieutenant Grange, are thwarted in their efforts by the raging storm and discovery of a second body. Fortunately, Bella has an ally in ex-detective-turned-PI Luther Ragland as well as novelist Calla Delaney and her eccentric grandmother/medium, Odelia. (Readers of Staub’s earlier YA Lily Dale series will remember Calla and Odelia; this book would appear to resolve the Calla/Jacy/Blue love triangle.)
The more Bella learns about the first victim’s ties to organized crime, the greater her worry becomes that Jiffy may have crossed paths with a ruthless predator. But Misty’s admissions about the strained state of her marriage to her military husband Mike, who’s currently on deployment, also raise the possibility of Jiffy’s disappearance being the result of domestic discord. A string of mysterious texts, the inexplicable whistling of Christmas carols, and strangers in their midst—including an Elvis lookalike—all conspired to compound the confusion.
Despite the urgency of these unresolved issues, it’s the relationships that ground the plot. In addition to her absolute devotion to Max, Bella has found a makeshift family in Odelia, Calla, Luther, and other townsfolk (and felines) who’ve welcomed them regardless of her respectful skepticism. She’s also grown fond of veterinarian Drew Bailey, though loyalty to her husband’s memory has disallowed for a romantic relationship—at least as of yet. And then there’s her budding friendship with Jiffy’s mom; though Bella has some reservations about Misty’s parenting style and standoffishness, circumstances have necessitated a reevaluation of sorts—and she realizes they may not be so different after all.
The story is told in the third-person through multiple perspectives, including Bella, Missy, Jiffy, and the killer. This approach serves to heighten suspense, as readers are often made privy to information—including imminent dangers—that remains unknown to those in jeopardy. Further, it allows the narrative to unfold in a broader context than would use of the first-person; arguably the greatest benefit, beyond creating tension, is the resulting emotional resonance. Misty, in particular, comes across as more vulnerable and empathic than she would if viewed solely through the eyes of others, while Jiffy’s passages add a welcome dash of humor and whimsy to counter the uncertainty and sorrow.
To say that the third time’s the charm might sound clichéd, or even superstitious (which is appropriate, in its own way), but Wendy Corsi Staub has an undeniable winner here. Despite their inherent differences—or perhaps because of them—Bella and her newfound Lily Dale community complement one another beautifully, as does the author’s skillful balance of harrowing mystery with lighthearted flourishes. Set against the backdrop of the holiday season, Dead of Winter reminds us that generosity and goodwill persist, families are not only given but made, and home is ultimately where you find it.
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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.