Chick sleuths

Imagine this: Sherlock Holmes — that’s right, the pipe-smoking, “Watson, you putz” guru of detective fiction, in his ubiquitous overcoat … and what is that? a deer-hunting cap? — lies on his bed, the better to slither into a pair of too-tight jeans, just so he can hit the town, dressed to the Halloween nines as Cher, “a raven-haired, bell-bottomed, tattooed rock goddess with exceedingly bad taste in men.”

(And how about if — once he managed to wrestle that zipper shut — he looked in the mirror and thought, “Not bad, if I pulled my fringed buckskin jacket far enough down over my hips”?)

Read that in one of Conan Doyle’s collected stories, and you’d probably think Sir Arthur had poured a mite too liberally from the snifter. But encounter it in Kathy Hogan Trocheck’s new mystery Strange Brew (it’s heroine Callahan Garrity who battles the bell-bottoms in the scene excerpted above), and you’ll have yet another reason to be thankful for a fresh batch of mysteries — including two by local authors Elizabeth Daniels Squire and Anne Underwood Grant — all of which star intrepid female sleuths bent on solving crime … and letting out a few girlish belly laughs along the way.

Smile when you say charm, pardner

Strange Brew is the sixth in a series that spotlights Callahan, a 40-year-old cleaning-business-owner-cum-gumshoe from Atlanta who lives with her indomitable mom, Edna, and dates a “not-so-civil” civil engineer named Mac.

Added to the mix is the cleaning service crew made up of: Sister and Baby, a pair of octogenarian sisters, one of whom is deaf, the other blind; the QVC-shopping, Zirconia-coveting Elva Jean; Ruby, a churchgoer whose deadpan act isn’t always an act; and, in this novel, a new “boy” whose name is Cheezer, a chemical engineer with a penchant for devising better cleaning agents. In less deft hands, these characters would seem, at best, minor, and at worst, bizarre. But Trocheck has a knack for hitting dead-on both the nitpicking and the caring that familiarity can breed.

The novel opens with sleuth Callahan chasing after her mother, to keep her from attacking a wino who had — viewer discretion is advised — used her gardenias as an outhouse. The forces that caused the wino to cop the squat in the flowerpot unfolds along with the mystery, but one fact does immediately impress itself on the reader: Whenever a woman barrels down the street to cuss out a man about her gardenias, you might as well hang a signpost above her head that says, “Welcome to the South, honey.”

Indeed, one of the many pleasures of Strange Brew is its observations about the Southern milieu: At one point, while in a small town to do some investigating, Callahan asks a man working behind the counter of the local diner if he knows a Catherine Rhyne. “Which one?” comes the response. “Big Kitty, Little Kitty, or Itty-Bitty Kitty?”

Turns out grits aren’t the only thing not for sale on yonder side of the Mason-Dixon line.

Putting the “Who?” in whodunits

“The interesting thing about an older sleuth is that, when you’re older, you’re all the people you used to be, and the one you are, too,” muses Elizabeth Daniels Squire, whose popular heroine Peaches Dann — a middle-aged sleuth who compensates for her lack of memory with mnemonic tricks, shrewd insights, common sense, and, when all else fails, good old-fashioned charm — makes her fifth appearance in Is There A Dead Man In The House?.

In this latest caper, Peaches — who, like her author, is at home in Asheville — leaves that familiar terrain for Tennessee, where her father and his new wife are renovating a historic log cabin. A suspicious fall from a ladder, and it’s evident that, the high price of contract labor aside, foul play is afoot.

The germ for the novel came when Squire received a phone call from her son. “He was restoring a house [which ended up being a model for the one described in the book], and he says, ‘We’re finding all sorts of fascinating, mysterious things,'” explains Squire. “And so I went down, and it was all my research happening before my eyes.”

As Squire describes those investigations, one begins to wonder at this genre, which has an otherwise-affable woman gleefully recounting how she tracked down a skeleton from 1849 in order to ensure that her descriptions would be historically accurate. But here, too, Squire has an answer:

“You know, it’s a funny thing about mystery writers. You would think that, since they write about such dark subjects sometimes, they might be gloomy. But the folk wisdom is that if you go to a convention of romance writers, they may be gloomy — because they’ve had to spend their whole time writing about sweetness and light,” she explains. “But when you go to a mystery-writers convention, they’re always in a raucous good humor — because they’ve gotten all the meanness out of their system.”

Peaches, herself, is no slouch in the yuks department: Anybody who’s ever lived with an ardent needlepointer — or an eternal optimist — will get a kick out of a running gag about the ubiquitous samplers stitched with cheery messages that crowd the home of Peaches’ new mother-in-law.

The new kid on the crime scene

The truth behind the wisdom that mystery writers have more fun is borne out by a very funny 8 a.m. phone interview with Anne Underwood Grant, who closed her Charlotte ad agency four years ago to move to the Mills River area and give the writing life a go. For four years, she received nothing but rejection notices, when suddenly — listen up here, would-be published writers — over the course of one week, she sold four books.

The first to hit the stands, Multiple Listing, introduces Sydney Teague, who takes to sleuthing to track down the killer of her friend Crystal. Grant freely admits that she based Sydney on herself — only better. For example, while her heroine always has a quip ready, Grant herself needs about 30 minutes to compose her comebacks. “Because it takes me so long, I’ve gotten back in my car and gone back to a place,” she mock-laments, “and said, ‘And I just want to say …'” In fiction, Grant can sweat out that incubation, and the results are hilarious: The margins of my copy of Multiple Listing are littered with scrawled “Hahs!” where I was surprised into laughter, even as the suspense of the mystery relentlessly tightened.

Finished with her second Sidney mystery and ready to start researching the third, Grant is reeling from deadlines (during the interview, she continued to refer to the previous night as “tonight” — a common sign of up-all-night productivity) — but she’s not complaining.

“I had come to believe it wasn’t going to happen,” she recalls, “and was sitting around trying to develop all kinds of philosophies about that.” The fateful week coincided with Hale-Bopp’s appearance. “[And] you better believe that I have a picture of that little comet that I keep right beside my chair.”

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