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Perennial mystery-award and Lambda Award winner Ellen Hart has long been a favorite of mine. Her mysteries are something to sink one’s literary teeth into—she’s a mystery reader’s mystery writer. While there may be a touch of sexy romance here and there in her novels, Hart’s books are solidly about the nuances of a crime—or several—and about what’s needed to solve the mystery.
Hart’s main detective, Jane Lawless, is a restaurateur with an insatiable love of food, women and murder. The naturally curious Lawless finds mystery aplenty in her Minneapolis environs and tackles everything from missing persons to murder with the same panache with which she handles her restaurants’ kitchens. In Hart’s latest, The Mirror and the Mask, Lawless is on the outs with her most recent lover and is on the verge of her 45th birthday when she meets the fetching and much younger Annie Archer, who walks into one of Jane’s restaurants looking for a temporary job so she can continue to fund her search for her stepfather.
After a day of mucking out a water-logged basement, Annie reveals to Jane what her search is about. Jane, whose Minneapolis restaurants are not handling the recession well, decides to put her sleuthing skills to work—for real money—and takes on Annie’s case.
As in any Hart mystery, however, nothing is as straightforward as it appears and the layers of complications peel back like the proverbial onion. There are complications aplenty, some of which involve Jane’s longtime friend, Cordelia Thorn, who runs a local theatre company in St. Paul (and who has appeared in all her charming grandiosity in previous novels by Hart). Complicating the story further is the VP of a realty company, her children, and some internecine connections that are multi-faceted, intricate—and deadly—as is so often the case in any big city that is really a small town.
Hart’s language is smooth, her plot savory and her characters meaty. She serves up a tempting soupcon of crimes with the same panache Jane employs in her gastronomic tours de force. The Mirror and the Mask is comfortably one of Hart’s best and will please both devotees and neophytes alike.
THE MIRROR AND THE MASK
By Ellen Hart
St. Martin’s Minotaur
Hardcover, $25.99, 320p