the hand of chance led me to a great mystery

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Title: Trace Their Shadows

Author: Ann Turner Cook

Series: The Shadow Series- book 1

Summary: Brandy O’ Bannon, a beginning reporter, needs to write a strong story to keep her job, so she begins to investigate the rumor of a haunting at the old Able mansion, which is about to be demolished.  Reluctantly, John (a cousin of the Ables) agrees to help her.  The haunting rumors quickly turn into a homicide investigation when Brandy and John discover a 45-year-old skeleton.  Now Brandy is determined to find the young woman’s killer, despite the growing dangers.

Randomly cool thing: The author was the model for the Gerber baby!

Four things led me to pick up this novel off of the library shelf: 1- it is a slim, trade-size paperback, which makes it easy to hold and to carry; 2- the author is a local (lives in Tampa, which is close enough), and her novel is set in Central Florida.  It’s unusual to find a cozy mystery set in my neck of the woods; 3– I liked the idea of the ghost story leading into solving a mystery; 4– her title is based on a line by John Keats, one of my favorite writers.  So, this book came home with me.  I’m glad it did.

Now, those of you who are regular readers of my blog know that I am very interested in narrators.  I think that a strong, dynamic, personable narrator is the key to a successful novel.  Cook’s novel is told in first person by Brandy.  Brandy is just out of college, working at a weekly circular-type paper that is distributed for free around the county.  She wants to be a proper journalist, even though her mother keeps encouraging her to become an English teacher.  Brandy is passionate and stubborn, but also making it up as she goes along.  Her vulnerability is one of her most enduring traits.  I also really liked how Brandy’s character changes subtly (as we all do) when she interacts with the different people in her life: her mother, her boss, the people involved in the mystery, John, her boyfriend, etc.  These small shifts in the ways she speaks, thinks, and acts make her seem more real.  I look forward to spending more time with Brandy as I read through the rest of the series. 

{Small note on the Brandy’s mother– according to her biography, Cook is a retired English teacher.  She clearly knows about the life, as evidenced by the fact that nearly every time we see Brandy’s mother, she is grading papers.  Later, another character in the novel says flippantly that teachers get out of school at 3 and have summers off, so why doesn’t her mother have time to do garden club?  Brandy replies, “Teachers work after they get home.  Especially English teachers.”– Preach it, Sister!   If you doubt the truth of this, drop me a comment, and I’ll do the math with you personally.}

This novel is set in the towns of Tavares and Mount Dora, both real small towns in Central Florida, during 1990–just as population and housing were beginning to boom in Florida.  Cook’s prose captures accurately the beauty and danger of the lakes, the Cypress swamps, and the Florida scrub. Her descriptions clearly show her appreciation for traditional Floridian history and architecture, and through the character of John, who is a preservationist architect, she mourns the loss of tradition and uniqueness to the plague of pre-fab, all-look-the-same, gigantic-garaged housing developments– guess I’m not a big fan, either. 

So, onto the mystery itself.  Since the skeleton is 45 years old, the entire investigation centers upon the end of an engagement/ welcome-home party held at the mansion for Brookfield Able.  Many of the participants and servants are dead by 1990, and the others are old, with somewhat unreliable memories of the past.  The readers hear various versions of the party and its ending as Brandy interviews the various witnesses.  I enjoyed playing detective along with Brandy, putting the pieces together to see what didn’t quite fit.  Along the way, family secrets are revealed, and romances surface.  Overall, Cook plays fair with her readers, dropping most of the clues we need; although towards the end she deliberately leaves us in the dark about the theory Brandy has concocted– we get enough to guess at her plan, but aren’t told through Brandy’s internal narration what it will be.  However, we learn soon enough, when her plan goes a bit awry.  The denouement is satisfying and brings all of the narrative’s strings together cleverly.  I particularly liked the final scene. 

Overall, I’m pleased to recommend a local author.  I will be following her series with interest, where shadows conceal secrets of the past.

For more on Cook and her novels, click below:

http://www.annturnercook.info/

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