"Cold Clay: A Shady Hollow Mystery" by Juneau Black; Hammer & Birch LLC ($12.95 paper)
What could be more comforting than a novel set in a cheerful country village where everyone knows each other's names and (mostly) forgives each other's quirks, where the coffee is always on and the pastry case always full, and where the bones of a missing wife and mother have just been unearthed in the local orchard?
"Cold Clay" extends the amusing fictional world created by Juneau Black in "Shady Hollow," where critters talk and behave like people in a cozy mystery, except when it's convenient for them to behave like animals (like, for instance, flying to the next plot point).
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Juneau Black is the pen name of collaborators Sharon Nagel, a bookseller at Boswell Books, and Jocelyn Kohler, a former bookseller turned independent writer.
Like "Shady Hollow," "Cold Clay" could be read by teens as well as adults. Even the squeamish can play: no gore, no violence and no sex, just a chaste (if rocky) romance. The ideal readers of "Cold Clay" will be people who read a lot; they'll enjoy the book's sly humor, allusions to other writers and winks at mystery conventions.
Vera Vixen, the determined reporter heroine of the first novel, returns for more sleuthing here. While all reporters are foxes, she also happens to be one genetically. Her friend and sounding board is Lenore Lee, a raven who owns the Nevermore bookstore, apparently the tallest building in town. (Turn your mental Poe-detector on for her scenes.)
The large skeleton unearthed in a local orchard turns out to be the bones of Julia Elkin, a haughty moose who apparently walked out on her husband, Joe, and son Joe Jr. years ago. Joe, owner of the popular Joe's Mug eatery, is one of Shady Hollow's most popular creatures, but he's immediately suspect No. 1. That's how deputy Orville Braun sees it, or at least that's the line the plodding bruin first pursues.
Vera, who's been spending time with the big bear lately, sees it differently, which puts her in conflict with her possible paramour. She pursues her own investigation around her other newsroom assignments, which include profiling Octavia Grey, a silvery mink who has just opened a charm school in the village.
Set in this timeless fantasy village, "Cold Clay" avoids the technical challenges posed by things like cellphones. Vera has to walk places to interview folks. It also sidesteps chain-of-evidence and forensic protocol, which seem to be missing from Orville's Big Book of Policing. Vera withholds evidence at least twice as she works around Mr. Big and Furry. And the size of the newspaper staff in this little village could make a contemporary journalist swoon.
Even in this relatively gentle world, baser impulses lurk. Hearing an account of one creature biting another, Vera reacts with shock: "Every creature feared this most of all – the knowledge that despite all they'd achieved as a civilized society, a darkness still lurked within them, something that could undo all their rationality and leave them with only instinct."
Fortunately, in Shady Hollow there is always coffee and the support of a winged- or four-legged friend nearby.