Book Review: Murder on the Rocks by Karen MacInerney

Tuesday, August 30, 2011
I seem to be in the mood for cozy mysteries lately. Maybe it's because it's summertime and no one wants to do too much this time of year. Maybe it's because, after working a full day and doing daily chores and having a neverending to-do list, I just want to relax. Or maybe it's because I like cozy mysteries.

I'm not sure how this book made it to my nook. I've downloaded a lot of books that looked somewhat interesting when they were offered for free or at a steep discount. Frequently the first book in a series is discounted, at least for a time, to entice the reader to try something new, with the hope that they'll like it and buy the rest of the series.

"Murder on the Rocks" is the first in Karen MacInerney's Gray Whale Inn series. According to the blurb, it was an Agatha nominee for 2006. The Agatha Awards are nominated by and voted on by mystery fans and presented at Malice Domestic, a convention held every spring in Bethesda, Maryland. You have to register before December 31st of the prior year to nominate books. The top nominees are placed on a ballot,  which is turned in at the convention.

This is a typical first in a series cozy mystery. Natalie Barnes leaves her native Texas to open a bed and breakfast on the Maine coast, investing all she has to do so. This sets her up as the typical "fish out of water" character, which gives the author an opportunity to explain and describe things to the reader on the pretext of having the character learn about them. Not only does Nat have to overcome the struggles of starting a new business, a potent threat to it comes in the form of a major resort developer who wants to build a huge hotel next door to the inn. When the developer turns up dead, Nat becomes the major suspect, not just because of the threat to her business, but because she's a leader in the "Save Our Terns" group that challenges the hotel's construction because it will destroy a sensitive nesting area.

There are a lot of things about this book that kept screaming "first" at me. These are things that I've become aware of since deciding to write my own mystery novels and I'm not sure an average reader would notice them.

One of these is the overuse of two verbs - headed and fished. Characters in this book are always "headed toward the kitchen" or "headed over to the store" or "headed down the path". Nat "fished her keys out of her pocket" and "fished whatever out of a drawer". I think the author could have found more alternative ways to say these things because it does get repetitious.

Another thing I noticed is that Nat often describes things that a real person may not have noticed. I kept thinking that the author, in her effort to include the five senses in her scenes, worked a bit too hard at this. Smells are usually mentioned every time Natalie enters a new place. Descriptions of flowers around the inn are too detailed for someone who never seems to be working in the garden.

My last objection is a personal thing and what is a negative for me is a positive for many readers of cozy mysteries. Nat is always cooking and baking. She gets up every morning and puts together breakfast for her guests. Now, running a real bed and breakfast, this would be something she'd need to do, so it's logical in terms of story, but I got tired of descriptions of what went into her coffee cake or muffins or fruit dish every day. And, after breakfast is over, she starts all over again with cookies or something to take to her friends or those she wants to interrogate in the course of her investigation. All this activity in the kitchen does give her a chance to ruminate over suspects and things but, as someone whose idea of cooking is popping frozen meals in the microwave or, when I really get ambitious, making sweetened condensed milk fudge like I did yesterday, I felt there was too much time spent on food.

After all that kvetching, what did I think of this mystery? I liked it.

The key for me is that I didn't pick out the murderer long before the end of the book, but it made perfect sense when the reasons were revealed. I had briefly considered this person at an earlier point in my reading, but the person wasn't a stronger or weaker suspect at that point. When you're evaluating a mystery, this is huge.

I also liked the secondary characters. I can see where their roles and relationships will form a nice ensemble cast for the series. The folks of Cranberry Island became like friends over the course of the novel. And that's what keeps readers coming back to a cozy series. You buy the next book because you want to find out what happens next in the life of the characters.

But (and I apologize for more kvetching), will I buy another book in this series? Probably not. My tipping point price for ebooks is five dollars. If I like a light cozy series, a book under five dollars is a no-brainer. I might go 6.99, 7.99 or even 8.99 for a book by an author I really like, and even then the higher price is reserved for longer books, books with depth, by authors like Diana Gabaldon and George R.R. Martin. The publisher has priced the Gray Whale Inn series ebooks at 9.99. If I run into a paperback copy at the Friends of the Library used book sale, I would probably buy it. If I happen to be at the library and see another book in this series, I might take it out. But there are so many books to read and so many already on my nook that I can read, I wouldn't ever pay 9.99 for a light read like the books in this series.

So, recommended, but buying it is pricey.

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