A Real Basket Case is Beth Groundwater's debut novel. In this Agatha-nominated cozy mystery, Claire Hanover fights to prove her husband Roger is innocent of murdering Claire's fitness instructor, Enrique.
Roger has been spending far more hours with his job than with his wife, so when Claire's friend Ellen buys her a massage with Enrique, she reluctantly agrees. However, when Enrique is shot in the midst of this massage and Ellen looks up to see Roger standing in the doorway with the murder weapon in his hand, the evidence against him is damning. Claire is convinced that someone set Roger up and she's going to prove who that person is and win Roger's trust back.
A Real Basket Case is a light, quick, enjoyable read. But don't try to read it too quickly or you'll miss the creative subtleties woven throughout the plot.
Groundwater has a firm grasp on how to use the English language to create effect. At the onset of the novel, Claire is talking on the phone and watching a group of rock climbers. When one of the climbers falls,
"...he swung back and forth until he could scrabble a handhold. He pulled himself to the rock, found footholds, and clung to the cliff like a squashed spider, his chest heaving."
Not only does this passage contain the vivid imagery of the squashed spider and the sharp contrast of that spider to the heaving chest, but it also works with the rest of the rock-climbing event to build up an analogy with Claire, her friends, and the events that will make up the plot of this novel. So we see some foreshadowing happening as well. Just one example of how Groundwater's concise style can pack a powerful punch.
The humor in this book is also very subtle. Numerous times I was reading along, caught up in the plot when I had to halt because I realized, "hey! That was funny." Claire's character plays right into this effect. Her good intentions in preposterous situations just result in humorous outcomes. Her interactions with Leon, the ethical drug kingpin, are prime examples of this. The paradox of his "ethics" and her naivete makes the absurd seem completely natural.
The only qualm I had with Claire was her inability - or unwillingness? - to stand up to her husband. She stands up the cops, to drug pushers, to her friends. But she just let her husband blame her for his entire predicament and she accepted the blame. I was really cheering for her to give him "what for" just once. But, building self-confidence comes in small steps. She built her confidence to fight for her family in this step. I'll be looking forward to see what steps she makes as the "Basket Mysteries" continue.