(creator: Jennifer Stanley)
|Cooper Lee, when we first meet her, is a good-looking 32-year-old blonde, 5ft 6in tall, and distinguished by having one eye that is blue and the other a shimmering green, the result of ocular transplant surgery, made necessary by a hockey accident at school. She works as an "office machine repair man" fixing copiers, laminators and fax machines all over Richmond, Virginia. She reckoned she “was more comfortable with machines them with people", as she had “always been lousy at small talk". Following a breakup six months previously with her boyfriend Drew (who, after over five years, had suddenly dumped her for another woman), she had gone back to living with her mother Maggie and father Earl, both "humble people who spent their money modestly, but gave generously of their time". She also has a younger sister Ashley who is happily married. She makes a determined and courageous investigator.
Jennifer Stanley (real name: J B Stanley) has a BA in English from Franklin & Marshall College, an MA in English Literature from West Chester University, and an MLIS from North Carolina Central University. She taught sixth grade language arts in Cary, North Carolina for the majority of her eight-year teaching career. Raised an antique-lover by her grandparents and parents, she also worked part-time in an auction gallery. Describing herself as an eBay junkie and food-lover, she lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, two young children, and three cats. She has also written a whole series of The Supper Club Mysteries (as J B Stanley) as well as another cozy mystery series called The Books by the Bay Mysteries (writing as Ellery Adams).
Stirring Up Strife (2010)
It makes a pleasing cozy mystery (recipes are included!) even if (inevitably?) it's all rather superficial. The Bible study group, for example, spends most of its time trying to solve the mystery of the death of one of its members, with occasional simple pious thoughts thrown in, but no real attempt to get down to any deep Bible study. It is really a closely knit social group in which members offer each other loving support - not that there's any harm in that, of course. The author herself apparently belongs to two such groups, and starts each chapter with a suitable (or at least vaguely relevant), Biblical text.
Although warned off by the police, Cooper finds that she can gain access to information that has been denied to them, and this eventually leaves her to the murderer, even though she does end up with a gun pressed into her ribs. But meanwhile she is very preoccupied with her possibly closer relationship with Nathan; “Though Nathan had smiled warmly at her and had sat beside her during church service, he hadn't mentioned getting together in the near future. As a result, Cooper spent the first three days of the workweek preoccupied by doubts concerning her date with Nathan. Was she a bad kisser? Had they been too much garlic on her Strawbridge Street cafe chicken breast? Had he found someone online that he wanted to meet in person?"
Path of the Wicked (2010)
However, it offers a stronger story than that of the first book and is considerably more interesting. It is still quite cozy, of course: the front cover describes it as one of a "Divine new series recipes included!" The back cover explains, "Congregants at the Hope Street Church know that charity begins at home. But sometimes what is giveth is mysteriously taketh away." Giveth? Taketh? Is this an attempt at humor - or just plain ignorance?). And when confronted with a Bible Study Workbook question, “What are you seeking most at this time in your life?", Cooper scribbles down, “I want to fall in love again. Really, God. I'm ready. I want myself a man." But, as she later happily chats to God, “You can get back to me on this one, Lord. I'll be listening for your answer." Another example of the cozy style is the way that every meal is described in quite unnecessary detail but presumably the author knows what her readers want.
However the book is more sexually explicit than many such cozy stories, even if on the first two occasions that Cooper and Nathan are just about to make love, something happens to interrupt them at the last moment. There is a nice moment, though, as just when everything is getting steamed up, her new water bra springs a leak and she saw it was “draining out over the surface of her breasts and staining her dress with the shadow of slimy moisture.
But there are some interesting characters such as her “grammy" whose “current menagerie of wounded creatures included a cat blind in one eye, a Canadian goose that had nearly been strangled by one of the plastic rings from a six-pack holder, and a motherless fox cub that had quickly become addicted to scraps from the Lee dinner table. But “the injured animals were only given temporary haven with the Lees as Grammy intended them to either return to their natural habitats or be adopted by local families. In order to avoid becoming too attached to her dependents, Grammy never gave names to the animals she cared for."
And Grammy is full of encouraging suggestions to help Cooper's love life: "You'd best fine tune your cookin' skills, girlie. You gotta get that boy from your Bible study on the line and reel him in. Best way to do that is to feed him and make him dream of more meals to come." And she does not beat about the bush: " 'Bout time you took a roll in the hay," she tells her grand-daughter. “You've been chaste as a nun for far too long." The book, incidentally, is dedicated “for Grandma, who passed on while I was writing this book. Her faith in me never wavered." Certainly Grammy sounds very much like a real person.
Another character with whom the author feels real sympathy is the bouncy young man Eugene who has Down syndrome, and Ben who is struggling with the problems posed by an alcoholic wife. And the description of the mostly lonely and sometimes desperate old people who depend on Door-2-Door dinners is really moving, and lifts the story onto quite a different plane.
Unfortunately, though, the handsome young Emilio, a new co-worker of Cooper's, is little more than a caricature, as when “He looked at himself in the mirror hanging from the inside of his locker door. 'Look out,' he announced smugly to his reflection, licking his full, sensuous lips in anticipation. 'Emilio is on the prowl." Then later on in he “strutted across the parking lot, his wavy, dark hair blowing in the wind and his eyes narrowed in determination. At that moment, he looked more like a wolf than a man."
And the author's description of of a “large chapel, where a sea of joy-filled faces was lifted towards the glow of two enormous projection screens" may not impress every reader in quite the way that she hoped. The same is true of the praise song written by two of Cooper's colleagues, which goes:
The Way of the Guilty (2010)
The emphasis throughout is less on the murder plot than on the personal problems of the characters, such as Ashley who desperately wants a baby and tells Cooper, “I found out I have a bicornuate uterus and even after surgery will have a tough time getting pregnant. Why did there have to be something wrong with me?" And there's another member of the group who develops breast cancer and has to face up to highly unpleasant treatment, during which members of her Group cut off her hair for her and find her wigs. "You will not face this alone," someone whispered. "We are with you." This sounds all too real, even though, during the hair-cutting, Cooper is asked to read aloud the Samson and Delilah story.
Cooper's hope to make love to Nathan is, at first, frustrated by the usual last-minute interruptions: "Just when Cooper was wondering if this was the moment to indicate a readiness to make her way upstairs to Nathan's bedroom, the doorbell rang. Nathan's sister had stopped by with her boyfriend. What was supposed to be a romantic evening with Nathan Cooper quickly became an intense Monopoly competition between the two couples."
Another of the many entertaining parts is when Ashley invites Cooper to a Pajama Party, by which she means a party featuring the sale of pajamas and lingerie, but Cooper misunderstands this and arrives in pyjamas! There follow some surprisingly explicit descriptions of edible underwear in assorted flavours, even "an object resembling a plastic cucumber" with an on/off switch. Not quite what might be expected from a "cozy" story. Nor is the quite frightening description of Cooper's investigative visit to Satan's (strip) club where she forms part of a team called “The Ball Busters" (even if she “wasn't happy about their team moniker"), playing against "Dicks with Sticks".
However, the story reverts to the cozy format when we are told that the sight of the corpse transformed the faces of the police "into visages of steely determination" that only relaxed when Cooper offered them “a plate of Magnolia's Marvels oatmeal raisin cookies" and “a hearty spread, including oven-warmed croissants, slices of cheddar and Havarti cheese, thick slabs of Virginia ham, small bowls of mustard and mayo, and of course, more of Marge's cookies" (for which the recipes are provided at the end of the book!).
And it is not long before Cooper feels attracted to tough guy Edward, the ex-drug-dealer, ex-prisoner, and son of the old man who had been murdered in the previous book: When he tells her, “I need you to believe I have the power to change. Understand?", Cooper "felt as though she could simply melt into Edward's chest. She wanted to linger in the moment, his breath stirring her hair, his hands capturing hers in a warm strong grip.
There is an amusing description of Grammy going shopping in Wal-Mart: She “was deliberately impish. She shuffled along behind her cart at a snail's pace, stopped abruptly in the middle of an aisle, and snorted with impatience when another woman blocked her access to the pitted prunes, and spent undue amounts of time choosing the perfect bunch of bananas only to rip them apart so that she ended up placing a single banana in her cart." Then she “held up bikini briefs in every colour and fabric, demanding to know where the store was hiding the underwear meant for 'normal, decent folk' …. She then held up a miniscule black pair of panties made of faux satin and spun them around on their hanger. Tell me, granddaughter. Is this underwear or an eye patch?' she asked."
It's fun too when Cooper, wanting to have a look over the dead man's apartment, passes herself off as a member of “The Inner Eye" and tells the manager, "Our futures shall be determined by destiny. My employees and I are all very sensitive about our spaces. In order to serve our clients, we have to obtain a state of complete peace in our home environment, so it may take me some time to determine if the chi in these apartments is well-balanced. I hope you're open to this approach."
All in all, it makes an entertaining read that has more to offer than most such "cozies".
|The cover looks appropriately cozy and reassuring.|