In The Purloined Puzzle by Parnell Hall, amateur sleuth and crossword impresario Cora Felton is asked to solve a puzzle, only to find that it’s been stolen―and a murder weapon has been left in its place (available March 13, 2018).
Wow, 19 Puzzle Lady books in and they’re still as fun and witty as they’ve ever been! Cora Felton is famous for being the Puzzle Lady—the renowned creator and solver of crossword puzzles—complete with a lucrative endorsement deal for Granville Grains breakfast cereals. What very few people know, however, is that Cora can’t solve a crossword puzzle to save her life, much less compose one. She’s a huge fraud who merely serves as the kindly-seeming frontperson for her niece Sherry, the real mastermind behind the crosswords. Which isn’t to say that Cora is a slouch in the brains department; she’s a whiz at Sudoku and—more relevant to her everyday life in the small town of Bakerhaven—crime-solving, often while working as an investigator for local lawyer Becky Baldwin.
As The Purloined Puzzle opens, Cora is enjoying her day, minding her own business as she gets a scone and a latte from her favorite bakery, when an obnoxious teenage girl comes barging in demanding Cora solve a crossword puzzle for her. As usual, Cora attempts to fob off her “fan” on Harvey Beerbaum, another Bakerhaven resident who happens to be a genuine cruciverbalist. She succeeds in getting Harvey to go with the girl, Peggy, to retrieve the puzzle, which is when things start getting weird. The puzzle goes missing, and a chagrined Peggy files a police report, prompting Police Chief Harper to bring the case full circle by consulting with the town’s most famous puzzle-solver:
“I have a crime and it’s right up your alley.”
Cora regarded the chief suspiciously. “What alley is that?”
“Don’t be like that, Cora. You know I always come to you when the police are stumped.”
“And you don’t know where to turn?”
“Not at all.”
“Is there a puzzle involved?”
“Yes and no.”
“You lost me, Chief. You had me at crime and you lost me at yes and no. Particularly pertaining to a puzzle.”
Harper rubbed his chin. “I’m telling this all wrong. It’s a robbery.”
“What was stolen?”
“Well, that’s the thing.”
“You tell me it’s a puzzle and I’ll scream.”
“It’s a puzzle.”
“Did you just say that to see if I would?”
The series’ trademark wit and banter are on full display as Cora gets roped into finding the missing puzzle despite her wholesale antipathy to the entire situation. To make matters worse, her good-for-nothing ex-husband, Melvin, is back in town. Despite her better judgment, she can’t help but still feel an attraction to the sleazeball, resulting in this hilarious exchange that she opens quite bluntly with:
“Can I sleep with Melvin?”
Becky Baldwin dropped her pen. The young, blond attorney who would have looked right at home in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition was actually a veteran courtroom strategist, practiced in maintaining a poker face.
Not today. She gawked up at Cora. “What?”
“My ex-husband’s in town. With no bimbo in tow. It’s a rare opportunity. I could take advantage of it.”
“You want my permission?”
“I’d like your legal opinion.”
“My legal opinion is you’re out of your mind.”
“That’s a little hasty, don’t you think? You didn’t even look up a precedent.”
“I don’t have to look up precedents when it’s Melvin. I know Melvin. He’s bad news. Anything involving Melvin is a bad idea.”
And this is even before Melvin finds himself accused of the murder of a young construction worker staying in the same hotel as he is! Cora is pretty sure Melvin is in town to run some sort of scam, but she’s also confident that he’s no murderer. As the homicide investigation becomes entangled with the case of the missing puzzle, it’s all Cora can do not to let her finer feelings for Melvin—stifled and laced with ill will as they are—get in the way of solving a very tricky murder mystery.
In addition to the solid plotting (when the murderer was revealed, I admit to feeling a chill more in line with reading a thriller than a cozy) and dizzyingly witty repartee, the three puzzles included—two crosswords and one Sudoku—give the little grey cells an excellent workout as well. Parnell Hall’s latest Puzzle Lady Mystery satisfied the puzzle junkie in me on every level, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store for the big 2-0.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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