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'Child Garden' Gives The Cozy Mystery A Shot Of Caffeine

Early on in this engaging suspense novel, heroine Gloria Harkness declares that she is not Miss Marple. It's something of an odd statement, considering she is very much cut from the same tea-cozy cloth as Agatha Christie's venerable character. If she's not Miss Marple, she'll do until the real thing comes along.

Author Catriona McPherson has created a memorable character in Gloria: She is forty, but as set in her ways as any retiree. Equal parts honey and vinegar, clear eyed but remote, she is so easily dismissible that no one would ever suspect she was on the trail of a criminal. People view her as an innocent; on occasion they might even consider her a dimwit. Yet, she tells us, detecting "loose little threads" which she "can pick at" makes having a go at a murder mystery irresistible.

On a rainy night, "filthy and wild," a car follows Gloria home. A knock comes at the door, and there stands "Stig of the Dump" — originally the caveman hero of a series of British children's books, now the childhood nickname of Gloria's old crush Stephen Tarrant. He'll serve as Gloria's accomplice in solving a series of haunting crimes — and add an element, restrained though it might be, of romance: Stig has grown into a man, warm, dog-loving, amiable, foulmouthed.

But Stig's got a stalker: April Cowan, a fellow student from a hippy school called Eden, which once occupied a nearby mansion that has since been repurposed as a residence for invalids and the elderly. April texts Stig asking him to meet her on the property, but when Gloria and Stig arrive to find April dead, Stig comes under suspicion and the case unfolds from there.

Gloria knows the mansion well. Her paralyzed, severely disabled son now lives at "the home." Nicky is afflicted with Pantothenate Kinase-Associated Neurodegeneration; "My little PKAN pie," Gloria calls him. "Nothing hurts him, nothing helps him, nothing ever will." Nicky's needs drive the action in The Child Garden; this maternal sleuth doesn't want any hint of scandal to shut down the home and disrupt Nicky's life.

In 'The Child Garden,' Catriona McPherson hooks you with her eccentric amateur sleuth, reinvigorating the exhausted conventions of the cozy-style mystery.

We're clearly in Scotland when one of the characters says he "was guddling around in the hall cupboard for wellies." And there is the mossy, lichened, magical druid-type stone, six feet round, in Gloria's yard that needs rocking exactly twelve times a day for luck. The cottage Gloria lives in, Rough House, is crumbling, and everything has a "mushroomy pungent smell." But now she has Stig to help make it a home, cluttering up the countertops with his breakfasts of "pinhead oatmeal and full-fat milk."

There is some fine writing in McPherson's book, as when Gloria catalogs the things she loves about Rough House. The wind "streaming over the grass and making it whisper, shushing through the trees, moaning where it was caught in the dips and rises. Sometimes I thought I could hear the stars turning on in the evening and the sun sighing like an old lady when it set. Sometimes I thought I could hear the worms in the soil and the flower buds popping open."

McPherson creates one of the most telling physical metaphors I've encountered recently: Gloria has worn the same hairstyle since she was 12. And what a do it is, a central part and two plaits wound closely around her skull. "It felt so clean and airy to have all my hair up away from my neck and yet it felt so secure to have it pinned there, safe and tight." That's the way Gloria likes her life, too, safe and tight. She doesn't care, she says, that folks call her Helga, or ask her what time it is because she looks like a figure in a cuckoo clock.

In The Child Garden, Catriona McPherson hooks you with her eccentric amateur sleuth, reinvigorating the exhausted conventions of the cozy-style mystery. Yes, the killings all occur off stage. Yes, the heroine drinks many cups of tea. Gloria Harkness is quirky to a fault. She is a bookworm, a loner. Her house is damp, her car messy, but her thinking is clear and sharp as a needle. One of the many pleasures of The Child Garden is seeing middle-aged, uptight Gloria let down her hair.

Jean Zimmerman's latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily at Blog Cabin.

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