Ellen Hart is reliable. That may sound like damning with faint praise, coming from a critic, but rather, it’s a relief. When I get an Ellen Hart mystery to review, I don’t have to grit my teeth and think about how I will never get those hours of my life back. Instead I can just settle in and wait to see what she’s going to do this time.
In addition to her reliability as a purveyor of solidly engaging and highly readable mysteries, Hart remains a bit of an anomaly. There are myriad lesbian mystery writers out there, myself among them, but few as prodigious as Hart. Plus, Hart has been with a major mainstream publisher for 20 years, yet hasn’t altered her openly lesbian storylines one iota.
No surprise then, that her most recent novel, The Cruel Ever After (Minotaur Books), is a Lambda Literary Award finalist. It’s got everything a lesbian mystery needs: queer characters, a little romance/sexual tension/potential heartbreak, a well-plotted mystery and, of course, murder most foul. Or in the case of Hart’s Jane Lawless, a restaurateur as well as detective, murder most fowl.
It’s hard not to like Lawless. She’s no-nonsense, hard-working and scrappy. She’s like a middle-aged Midwestern (Minneapolis) Nancy Drew with a well-seasoned palate, both culinary and sexual. This is Hart’s 18th Lawless mystery and readers feel much as they did as kids with Nancy–like they really know her well. Or do they?
Because The Cruel Ever After starts out with a revelation: Lawless was married. To a man. And now he’s back after quite some time and calling her for help. Serious help. Detective help. Because there’s been a murder.
It’s complicated, of course, because Hart likes layers and The Cruel Ever After has as many as a phyllo pastry. Chester “Chess” Garrity is an antiquities dealer. And possibly a reprobate. And possibly a con artist. And possibly gay–at least that’s what Jane thought when she married him. Perhaps.
Chess has been trying to arrange the sale of the Winged Bull of Nimrud, a priceless artifact stolen from the Baghdad Museum during the current war on Iraq. He’s working covertly with another antiquities dealer, the mysterious and cunning Irina Nelson whose mother runs a gallery. But when a Maltese Falcon-style object is in play, people get greedy and sometimes, murderous.
Which is how Chess comes to find himself hideously hung-over at the house of art collector Melvin Dial. He’d proffered the Winged Bull to Dial for a price, but now there’s a problem: Dial has been stabbed to death and Chess is the likely suspect.
Blackmail ensues and Chess is forced to give Jane a call, which definitely puts the cat among the pigeons. Because Chess doesn’t figure in Jane’s life–yet there he is.
Jane didn’t need one more personal complication, either. She already has best friend Cordelia, who is always providing some level of drama, because Cordelia isn’t just in the theater, she is theater. And then there’s Julia, the oncologist from whom Jane has recently separated–much to Julia’s dismay. Jane also has her brother Peter’s family and her restaurant family to worry about. In this cast of characters, everyone has a role to play as if Cordelia had scripted it herself. Don’t think any of these characters are filler or seat warmers–Hart folds them into the plot with careful deliberation. Every role holds a little surprise.
The Cruel Ever After is also a crisp homage to Hammett and Chandler, with noir-ish turns in which devotees of the genre will recognize The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. But the complex plot is pure Hart. When a second murder takes place, Lawless must call in reinforcements. Then things really get dicey with an attack on Jane, a kidnapping, that pesky artifact and just when the reader thinks Lawless is completely out of her depth, she stuns–as does Hart.
The Cruel Ever After is deeply satisfying–a serious, resonant mystery that also shows readers a side of Lawless we had yet to see. This is vintage Hart–the plotting is deft, the dialogue sharp, the story compelling and full of twists. For devotees and newcomers alike.
—— The Cruel Ever After
A Jane Lawless Mystery
by Ellen Hart
St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books
Hardcover, 9780312614768, 336pp.
December 7, 2010