BY SEAN CLARK

Author: Jessie Crockett

2010, Mainly Murder Press

Filed Under: Mystery, Short-Run

As of late, for what reason I’m not sure, I’ve been enjoying the quick-read gratification of trade mysteries and thrillers.

Although its title isn’t very original, and it won’t be winning any awards, Live Free or Die managed to scratch this newfound itch of mine just fine. At times the book read a bit housewife-y, but ultimately it all added to the charm. I got a Murder She Wrote kind of vibe, if that makes sense. There’s a quaintness to the narrative at work that complements its secluded town setting nicely.

Gwen Fifield is a pretty unassuming lady in the small New Hampshire town of Winslow Falls. She’s a widow of seven years, the town postmistress and vice-chief of the volunteer fire department. A string of fall fires escalates into a murder mystery when the town historian is found dead in the burning local museum. The site is so ghastly, the fire chief keels over with a coronary and Gwen is thrust in charge.

Gwen tags along with Hugh, a hunky, red-bearded state fire investigator assigned the case, and they start to piece together just who would want the old lady dead, and why. Things ramp up when some of the victim’s antiques (despite most of the town believing her museum just full of old, worthless junk) are noticed missing from the crime scene. Then one of their suspects ends up dead, and things get even more intriguing, and dangerous, for Gwen. Somehow two murders don’t warrant the involvement of the real police, though. The town policeman, Ray, is borderline retarded, and wisely defers to Gwen and Hugh, who, despite not being an actual law enforcement officer, does most of the police work. It’s a good thing too, as Ray, along with most of the town, automatically blames the immigrant Brazilian family and would be content to arrest them and let that be that. Local TV news doesn’t appear to have penetrated Winslow Falls yet.

Being a proud New Hampshirite, I took a little exception to Crockett’s depiction of the townsfolk as simple bumpkins with a widespread distrust of foreigners. But it works for the story she needs to tell, and in the end, their township isn’t characterized offensively (like the murderous British rubes in The Siege of Trencher’s Farm). It’s more playful, like Funny Farm. Despite their flatness from angles such as that, Crockett’s characters do find personality, certainly enough to keep a whodunnit interesting.

You’ll probably figure out the killer before the book’s big denouement, but it’s okay. Crockett offers up a few viable suspects, and does a commendable job of plotting an original murder mystery against the backdrop of a antique-heist caper. It can lay on the lovey-dovey stuff a bit too heavy at times (along with Gwen’s overweight insecurities, this is responsible for most of its housewife-y vibe), but all in all it’s a nice little mystery by an unknown author that’s worth a look from casual mystery fans.

Similar Reads: No Rest for the Dead (Gulli, ed.), The Darker Side (McFadyen), Hot, Shot, and Bothered (McFarland)

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