Josie Prescott owns an antiques house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It's a nice little business where she holds tag sales and auctions. And at the onset of Deadly Appraisal, she's hosting a charity auction for the Portsmouth Women's Guild Annual Black and Gold Gala. The Gala is a huge success until Maisy Gaylor, a Guild representative, dies after drinking poisoned wine.
But wait! The mystery is not simply who killed Maisy. It is much more complex than that. There is some question about whether Maisy was the intended victim. Detective Rowcliff first wants to know if Josie killed Maisy. BUT, then he wants to know if anyone would have a reason to want JOSIE dead. Could Josie have been the intended victim? The wine glass was sitting on the table where both Josie and Maisy stood. Could the wine have been meant for Josie, not Maisy? Was Maisy collateral damage? It just so happens that Josie's former boss, who she testified against in New York City, has recently been released from jail. Could he be hunting Josie down to seek retribution?
Josie investigates antiques and their histories, she doesn't investigate crime. But, when someone tries to run her down with their car, she refuses to be a wilting flower. She'll get to the bottom of this case one way or another.
I don't have many cozy mysteries in my library, so I wasn't sure what to expect when I started Deadly Appraisal. What I found was a fun, dynamic woman in Josie Prescott. What was especially wonderful about Deadly Appraisal was that Josie Prescott didn't magically become this ace investigator after having no experience with detecting whatsoever. Instead she simply used her survival instinct to weather a bad situation. She relied on the police. She relied on her attorney. She even relied on a hired body guard. Josie experienced fear, uncertainty, loneliness. I found myself thinking, "I would probably respond exactly the same way."
I also found myself pitying Josie because while she is an extremely kind, generous, nice person, she doesn't have many close friends. Partly because she's relatively new to New Hampshire, but also I think it has to do with her personality. It is just harder for some people to develop those close relationships, but once they do develop them - with time, trust and experience - the bonds are among the strongest! I wanted to jump into the story and become her friend. I could empathize with her feelings of loneliness. Alas, I didn't need to do that at all. Josie begins to develop a special friendship with her new landlord, Zoe. As I said, people like Josie take time to develop close relationships, so their friendship isn't an instantaneous connection. Even at the end of the novel, they're still working on that special friendship, but it's budding.
One of the main themes to this novel is "perception." And if you can read this novel and not think of how you have mis-perceived things in your own personal experiences, I don't think you're reading very carefully. I couldn't help myself from wondering, "wouldn't I have had those same questions? come to those same conclusions?" Perception is a powerful concept, and Cleland nails that power in this novel. She taps the power of perception to keep the reader wondering. You might figure things out early in the book; Cleland gives you the ability to do that, but at the same time, there are all kinds of different possibilities as well that will make you start to seriously question your conclusion. You're trapped in those mis-perceptions. It's like you're in a room with a bunch of wax figures and the real thing. But the wax figures are so realistic that you can't determine which is the "real thing." Josie says it best when she narrates,
It felt as if I'd catapulted through time into the petrifying hall of mirrors of my childhood and I could no longer trust my perceptions.
The language of this books is befitting the setting of an antiques house. The beauty transcends time. It isn't new-fangled hip slang, but rather a classic use of language that teases the senses. Take this passage for instance:
Standing on the jalousie porch that jutted out toward the ocean, I could hear the peaceful sound of thunderous waves even through the closed doors.
The contradiction is amazing and the image it conjures up is nature at it finest. I can't help but appreciate when an author uses language so powerfully as Cleland does.
I loved the plot of this book and the language is divine, but what really endeared me - I know you're not surprised - was the character development. Josie is a wonderful character, but there is a great supporting cast as well. Zoe and her two children are funny and warm, down to Earth. Max is Josie's attorney and he has a very father-like personality. He's 100% in Josie's corner, but he's also very in tune to what is going on with the investigation, what's the right thing to do, etc. And Josie's staff. Their interactions with Josie and with each other make the antiques house an inviting place. I took a special shine to Eric, such a kind, modest, hard-working young man. You can just picturing him blushing at the slightest compliment. Gretchen is Josie's assistant, and I think there may be a storyline in Gretchen's future. I'll have to follow the series and see. Gretchen has a bit of mystery to her character, so I'll be keeping my eyes on her. Even Detective Rowcliff is a great character. He comes across as a crotchedy, mean detective. Josie notes that, "He sounds angry even when he walks." I think I'm familiar with that sound myself. But as Max is quick to notice, he's serious about doing his job and doing it right. You are confident that Rowcliff is a cop on the up-and-up. If I had a case that needed solving, I'd want a detective like Rowcliff on the job!
So, now I know what to expect from a cozy mystery from Jane Cleland. A lot of fun, a reading experience for all my sense, and terrific, realistic, dynamic characters. This is a series I will be sticking with!