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Arsenic and Old Puzzles: A Puzzle Lady Mystery by Parnell Hall
Cover Artist: Young Jin Lim
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Minotaur Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312602482
Date: 22 January 2013 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

In Bakerhaven, Connecticut, the elderly Guilford sisters, Charlotte and Edith, operate a dilapidated bed-and-breakfast. One morning, a mysterious stranger drops dead at the breakfast table--a victim of elderberry wine laced with poison. Soon afterwards, another victim is found in the window seat. In each case, a crossword puzzle from an old newspaper was found on the scene. As the body count mounts, the Puzzle Lady, Cora Felton, learns that the murders are very similar to the ones committed in Frank Capra's classic film, Arsenic and Old Lace.

Parnell Hall's latest Cora Felton mystery, Arsenic and Old Puzzles, (following $10,000 in Small, Unmarked Puzzles and The KenKen Killings) is the most bizarre, most macabre, most violent cozy I have ever read. I enjoyed this one for many reasons. First, it is Parnell's excellent tribute to one of the most celebrated films in history, Frank Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant and Peter Lorre. The latter played opposite Vincent Price in several Roger Corman horror classics, such as The Raven and Tales of Terror, that are based on the literary works of Edgar Allan Poe. Incidentally, Boris Karloff, who is mentioned several times in Arsenic and Old Lace, costarred with Price and Lorre in The Raven.

The body count is one of the highest I've read in a cozy written by Hall or any other cozy writer. Naturally, all the murders are performed off screen. None of them are gruesome. The murders help guarantee a fast pacing. Cora is at her zaniest, and nastiest, as she tries to apprehend the killer. Hall writes the following when a jealous Cora meets a young, attractive female suspect: "Cora assessed her charitably as a promiscuous gold digger, uncharitably as a crack whore." (However, it is Cora who engages in an adulterous relationship with one of the characters who is a married man.) Later in the novel, after she is disturbed from her sleep, she looks in the mirror and assesses herself: "She was a wreck. An old racehorse trotted out too many times with nothing left for the stretch run."

Another main character, Alan Guilford, who is the nephew of the Guilford sisters and a prime suspect in the murders, compares Cora Felton to Miss Marple. Indeed, he claims to be a fan of Agatha Christie. However, I never knew Miss Marple to be a wisecracking, promiscuous lush. It is Cora who first suspects that the killer is recreating scenes from Arsenic and Old Lace. Thanks to local reporter, Rick Reed, a media frenzy descends on Bakerhaven. The entire town grows crazier as the body count rises. At the novel's end, Cora assembles all the suspects in one room and, after a long denouement, reveals the killer. I was shocked.

Fans of Parnell Hall's zany amateur sleuth, Cora Felton, will truly enjoy Arsenic and Old Puzzles. I recommend watching Arsenic and Old Lace prior to reading the novel in order to have a greater appreciation. The film is quite bizarre; it has a great deal of dark humor. The setting is a bed-and-breakfast next to a Brooklyn cemetery on Halloween. Thanks to several eccentric, murderous relatives in the Brewster family, corpses are piling up in the window seat and in the basement. Only Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) seems to be a normal character in this house of horrors; he is intent on keeping the minister's daughter, who lives next door, from finding out about the murders. The novel, Arsenic and Old Puzzles, strongly resembles the film. The mystery's resolution is loaded with implausibilities; however, it is a cozy and not to be taken seriously.

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