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Onyx reviews: Cruel as the Grave by Dean James

If anyone should know what makes a successful mystery, it is Dean James, manager of Houston's 'Murder by the Book,' a nationally renowned mystery bookstore. The world's most famous mystery authors are frequent visitors to the little shop on Bissonette, where a Maltese Falcon statuette lurks from between first editions of Chandler, Hammett and Gardner as well as contemporary writers.

Cruel as the Grave is James' first novel, a murder mystery in the grand style of Agatha Christie but set in the American South. Maggie McLendon, a Ph. D. student living in Houston, and her father Gerard, an English professor, are summoned back to Gerard's family home in Jackson, Mississippi with word that Maggie's grandfather Henry is near death. Maggie has not seen her grandfather or anyone else in her father's family for over twenty-five years because her father and grandfather have been estranged for reasons unknown to her.

Maggie's first surprise after they arrive in Mississippi is the discovery that her family is hugely wealthy. In the finest Agatha Christie tradition, McLendon Manor is enormous, lavish, and populated by an extended family full of carefully guarded secrets. Maggie and Gerard discover on their arrival that while Henry's health is poor, news of his impending demise has been exaggerated. Family members have conspired to bring the two men back together while there is still time.

The manipulated reunion is a rousing success. By the end of their first day in Mississippi, Gerard has smoothed over his differences with his father. Maggie is enchanted to make the acquaintance of her long-lost family members, motley crew that they are. Murder puts a crimp in the family gathering when someone violently pushes Henry McLendon into an early grave. Only a member of the household could have committed the murder, which took place while the family watched a movie. Maggie and her great-aunt Helena are the only two potential suspects who have alibis.

The two women take it upon themselves to delve into the mysteries held firmly by the McLendon clan. The results of Maggie's investigation hint at another possible murder, the death of her grandmother twenty-seven years earlier, an event that corresponded with the last time her father and her grandfather spoke.

In English mystery tradition, the inquiry does little at first to narrow down the list of suspects but rather reveals that everyone in the household had a valid reason to commit the murder. The police, however, soon declare that Maggie's father heads their list of suspects. As the past threatens to give up all of its secrets, the killer strikes again in an effort to ward off discovery.

James does a magnificent job of reconstructing the ambience of an English "cozy" mystery. The characters are well-drawn and fully realized. The intricacies of the mystery are logical and Maggie and her cohorts unravel the pieces in a logical and satisfying manner. If there is any weakness to the story, it is that the police's suspicion of any particular character is never seriously threatening. The police facilitate Maggie's investigation by conducting their serial interviews to establish the minute details surrounding the crimes and putting all of the players in their respective places.

One at a time, Maggie rattles the skeletons in the McLendon closet and pushes the murder, who has been harboring resentment and rage for decades, to the breaking point. The ultimate tension is whether she will be able to bring the killer to justice before more members of the family end up dead in the cozy drawing rooms of McLendon manor.

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