4+ out of 5 stars to Death of a Mad Hatter, the 2nd book in the “Hat Shop” cozy mystery series, written in 2014 by Jenn McKinlay. I enjoyed this book and it was a good, traditional cozy read full of fun characters and some great family drama. And it made me think of the wonderful adaption of the Alice in Wonderland books…
Why This Book
I’m a fan of Jenn McKinlay’s writing style and several of her other book series. I’m almost current on her “Library Lovers” mystery series and had picked up the first book in the “Hat Shop” series last year. I liked it so much, I ordered books 2 and 3 on Amazon. I was recently in a reading slump and hadn’t read for 7 day. That’s very unheard of for me, so I went with an old favorite to push me out… and it’s helping. I am even going to read book 3 next, so that I’m back on my game.
Plot, Characters & Setting
Scarlett Parker, an American, moved to London in the last book to help run the hat shop her grandmother willed to her and her British cousin, Vivian Tremont. Their grandmother has been gone for a few years, but Scarlett needed to escape a relationship disaster and thought London would provide a fresh lease on life… and it has, especially when she’s finding herself attracted to Harrison, their hat shop’s business manager. In this book, she and Harrison continue their flirting dance while trying to ensure their hat shop isn’t dragged down by a murder. An old friend of their grandmothers, Dotty Grisby, asks the girls to make all the hats for her upcoming tea party in the hopes she can have the new hospital wing named after her late husband. As Viv and Scarlett meet and work with all the members of the Grisby family, they find themselves embroiled in a sea of vipers who are all annoyed that their late father left all his money to the eldest son, as was traditional in England up until the law changed a few years ago. And the widow has a bit of dementia, believing Viv is actually her grandmother, not realizing how many years have passed since she died. When the eldest son turns up dead at the tea party, the cops find evidence potentially connecting the hat shop to the murder. Scarlett investigates while Harrison tries to keep her out of it. She becomes close to some members of the family and an annoyance to others. At one point, someone even tries to hurt both her and Harrison. But Scarlett won’t give up and keeps pushing deeper and deeper until she learns more family secrets. And when she visits one of the family members to try to warn her, Scarlett finds herself right in the line of fire again. She survives this one, but the outcome leaves a few more issues among the family and Scarlett’s newest friendships.
Approach & Style
The story is told in a first-person perspective from Scarlett’s point of view. It’s consistent throughout the story, and every so often, she pushes the envelope just a little by making comments aimed at the reader. I read the paperback version, which is 28 chapters, each about 10 pages long, totaling just under 300 pages in the book. The writing and language are light, but consistent. There is humor and a little bit of suspense, but it’s a cozy mystery, so never anything too scary, vulgar or off-putting.
Scarlett is a strong character. She’s charming and funny without pushing the boundaries. She laughs at herself, is a bit opinionated, and is often a little too direct in the British world, but this makes the drama feel real. I like her relationship with Nick and Andre, a gay couple who she’s befriended in the previous book. And her tiptoeing around Harrison is flushing out nicely. She and Vivian haven’t quite clicked for me, but then again, they are cousins who have been a bit separated over the years, so I wouldn’t expect it to be all chummy right away.
The humor is what makes Ms. McKinlay’s books good. It’s got a balance of character, plot, setting and fun. The family drama here is strong. There are a lot of characters who could be good or bad. It keeps you guessing and you want to know who is out to kill the eldest brother. Makes you wonder how many people would really kill their brother, son or uncle in order to collect an inheritance, but still…
The books take place in London, and although you do feel transported there, it’s mostly by the description of the setting being laced throughout the story. I’d like the language and the structure of the relationships to be more closely aligned. It happens a few times in the story, e.g. when they talk about Scarlett being too direct for the British, but I think it needs to be more obvious in the words, phrases and attitudes we see covered for each character.
For this specific plot, I had a hard-time buying the ultimate killer’s true motivation. I won’t give away any spoilers, but you know there are a few layers or relationships going on between the grandfather who recently died, his widow, his mistress he lived with in France, the machinations between the 4 children and then the grandchildren. I’m not sure it was cleanly explored enough for readers to figure this one out… not that it’s the point of the novel, but I would have liked more time to get to know the family before the revelation of who killed whom and why. At 280 pages, it felt too short for the complexity behind this story. Still good, but could have been stronger.
If you like cozy mysteries, British characters, American humor and a play on Alice in Wonderland, you will find this one amusing. I really think the author is a strong writer in the humor and cozy market, and I plan to read book #3 very soon, perhaps tonight, as I want to see if the series is growing or just maintaining its place.
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