SERPENT’S TOOTH is technically the second Victoria Sears/Lynn Hanson Mystery – the first is DEVIL’S PLAGUE, which is packaged with Gary Lovisi’s DRIVING HELL’S HIGHWAY in a double edition by Wildside Books – but it stands on its own as a fun, essentially cozy mystery novel. I should note that I haven’t yet read DEVIL’S PLAGUE, but I never felt lost while reading SERPENT’S TOOTH.
This is what I suppose must be described as a “cozy” mystery, since the violence mostly happens off-stage and the mystery is solved by two amateur detectives: Victoria Sears, a fiercely independent octogenarian, and Lynn Hanson, a younger women who is grieving the deaths of her husband and child. The story is set in Fox Creek, a quiet, remote mountain community where Lynn has moved to pick up the pieces of her life. In many ways, Victoria is the star of the novel, and provides a great deal of atmosphere and wisdom, but it’s told through the voice of Lynn.
Some mild plot spoilers follow, but I promise not to ruin the mystery for you!
A young man with a troubled past has recently returned to the area to live with his grandmother, while doing odd jobs and raising some hell. Early one morning he’s found badly beaten, dead, and accompanied by some drugs in his bedroom by Carver Ellis, another young man who seems the obvious suspect. (Ellis seems to have been involved in the first mystery of the series, possibly used as a scapegoat in a previous death.) Victoria and Lynn are asked to help clear Ellis’ name; to do that they have to figure out how and why the apparent murder victim died. Lynn functions mostly as Watson to Victoria’s Holmes, with Victoria clearly seeing from the outset that all is not as it first seems. They also struggle with the eternal dilemma of all amateur detectives: they have to convince the local cops that they should continue to remain involved in the investigation while they hunt for clues and interview suspects.
As with all of Michael R. Collings’ work, this is an outstanding piece of writing. The opening of SERPENT’S TOOTH is so engagingly written that I was pleasantly reminded of the start of THE GRAPES OF WRATH, one of my favorite novels. The characters are the intriguing, eccentrics readers of mysteries always hope for and setting is vibrant and has the distinctive feel of a “real place.” I found myself wanting to know more about all the characters, their histories, and their interactions and relationships as I read, which is always a good sign.
SERPENT’S TOOTH is a quick, light read, and I recommend it to fans of “cozy” mysteries. The personalities of the characters are fun and the rural, small-town setting is one that I haven’t seen in a lot of other cozies, so if you’re a fan of the genre I recommend it for that reason alone. I look forward to next Victoria Sears/Lynn Hanson Mystery, particularly because I’m curious how Lynn develops over time. She’s still mourning the loss of her husband and child and recovering from that tragedy, but I suspect that time and her new relationships in Fox Creek will help her move past that and develop further as a character.
Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers