For years, I wished some unknown relative would leave me a marvelous old house. That’s just what happens to Merry Wynter in Bran New Death, the debut novel in Victoria Hamilton’s delightful new cozy series — only in her case, it’s a castle.
The book begins with Merry’s arrival in upstate New York to see her inheritance — and hopefully, get it in shape to sell. But she runs into a a few complications. Someone’s digging huge holes in the lawn. Her long-lost uncle’s car accident might not have been accidental. Her uncle’s development partner, Rusty, is missing; their partnership was plagued by irregularities and lawsuits. And it appears that someone has been camping out in the estate’s woods. When someone turns up dead in one of the holes, Merry has a lot more to sort out than one somewhat dilapidated old castle.
The beginning chapters contain more than the usual amount of info-dump. Filtered through Merry’s engaging voice, this is not at all annoying and serves to quickly establish Merry’s background and her current situation. The nearby town of Autumn Vale is charming, quirky, and down on its luck. Equally quirky are its obligatory collection of eccentric residents, which include a young pastry chef, the owner/manager of a nursing home, the pixie-like librarian, a sullen 15-year-old photographer, and Merry’s real estate agent, McGill. The sheriff, the banker and his teller, the lawyer, and Rusty’s son and former mistress round out the cast of townsfolk.
The characters and relationships are nicely done. Merry makes several new friends in town, and is joined by her best friend Shilo from New York. She’s quickly drawn into the life of the town, baking muffins for the local nursing home, eating at the diner, worrying about young Lizzie (the sullen teenager), and employing a few locals to help her with cleanup. There’s a sweet but largely off-stage romance between Shilo and another secondary character — and a hint of potential between Merry and the handsome sheriff. Shilo’s bunny Magic, Uncle Melvyn’s cat Becket, and Merry’s baking add to the cozy feel — cozy but not fluffy, as Hamilton scatters more serious scenes among the lighter ones.
The relatively complex mystery plot kept me guessing almost until the end, with plenty of suspects and a judicious mix of clues and obfuscation. Merry’s sleuthing flows naturally out her need to sort out the obstacles standing in the way of selling the castle, as well as her desire to clear herself — as the person who found the body (and who was heard threatening the victim earlier that day), she’s definitely in the picture as far as Sheriff Grace is concerned.
But even as she puzzles out the murders, Merry is falling in love with her inheritance as well as her new town. Can she find a way to keep her beautiful, impractical castle, and maybe even revitalize Autumn Vale at the same time? That question, and the reason for all those holes, remain a mystery, though there’s a strong hint in the last chapter. I suspect the sequel will answer both dilemmas. I’m eagerly awaiting the next book, Muffin But Murder, due out August 2014. The Merry Muffin Mysteries are one series well worth following!
Rating: 4 stars
About the author: Virginia Hamilton is the pseudonym of Donna Lea Simpson, bestselling author of the Lady Anne historical mysteries. As Virginia Hamilton, she writes the Vintage Kitchen and Merry Muffins cozy mysteries series.
Category: Cozy mystery
Series: Merry Muffin Mystery #1
Publisher: Berkeley Prime Crime (Penguin)
Release date: Sept. 3, 2013
Book source: Public library