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The novel Cold Feet by Karen Pullen is the first in a series of Stella Lavender Mysteries. Written in the first person, the story of Cold Feet is primarily seen and told through the eyes of North Carolina Special Agent Stella Lavender. Stella works as an undercover drug agent, usually at night and in dark, dangerous places. As the book opens, she is looking forward to attending an upscale outdoor wedding with her grandmother, Fern, an artist commissioned to illustrate a book cover for the mother of the groom. The ceremony is held at Rosscairn Castle Bed and Breakfast, built in 1915 as a replica of a Scottish castle. The wedding is off to a late start. During a trip to the restroom, Stella, alerted by raised voices, discovers the bride lying dead on the carpet of her dressing room. From the contorted position of the body, it appears she has been poisoned. Stella immediately takes charge and calls the county sheriff’s department. She’s been wanting to transfer from drug enforcement to homicide, and the murder offers her the perfect opportunity to prove she has what it takes to solve the case. As the plot progresses, Stella continues her nighttime undercover drug runs and begins her new day job after she is requested to assist on the homicide.
The characters in Cold Feet are skillfully drawn. The groom’s father is the minister of a cyber-church, and he preaches Hell fire and damnation. His mother is a life coach and author who is able to turn every situation into a positive. The groom’s former girlfriend is stalking him, taking pictures from a distance on her cell phone. The groom himself, Mike, is very fit and works as a personal trainer at a gym. Stella’s grandmother is a charming character who lives in a cottage with cats and goats. And during the autopsy, Justine, the bride, is discovered to be a trans-woman. Stella’s partner in the under-cover work is a foodie and wine buff who spends his time extolling the meals he’s prepared or been served. He’s a character who seems facile in the beginning of the book, but is developed into more of a three dimensional character as the story unfolds.
The roles of gender and of sexuality play a large part in this novel. Justine’s own brother still thinks of her as “him,” and still calls her Johnny. In addition, Justine was going to marry into a family that couldn’t fathom anyone being transgendered. Dealing with the death of their daughter-in-law runs counterpoint to dealing with the realities of who she was, which leads them to face some truths about their own lives in the process. The murder also throws Stella into contact with her ex-fiancé, Hogan, an SBI researcher.
First time author Pullen has given readers a well-written, exciting mystery that includes a look behind the scenes of undercover drug agents. In one scene where Stella is going to make a huge cocaine buy, she reflects, “Despite my earlier positive thinking…as the car sped along I felt increasingly anxious, unable to see or control the inevitable.” There are many twists and turns in this well-crafted mystery, along with a couple of ‘seat of the pants’ moments of dread. The descriptions of the North Carolina countryside, as well as the wonderful characters that populate this area, add balance to the drug and murder scenes. Also adding balance is the sense of humor that Fern, Stella, and some of the other characters share. This is a mystery, but it still provides some light, humorous moments.
Cold Feet, A Stella Lavender Mystery
By Karen Pullen
Hardcover,9780978625153, 292 pp.