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cold clay & mirror lake

So last year during my little summer reading thing I read Shady Hollow by Juneau Black, a cozy mystery about a community of little woodland creatures. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote about it, but I remember it being cute if a little cliché. So when I saw the other 2 books in the series at the library I grabbed them, hoping they would help me get out of my reading slump a bit. So what did I think of them?

Ultimately I wanted to like both of these books more than I did, but they both share the same core problem. While I adore the setting, the mysteries are both pretty weak in the same way. Essentially, they’re both mysteries with only 1 possible suspect. Let me explain.

Big spoilers for both books by the way. Bounce while you can if that bothers you. Or don’t. I’m not your dad.

In Cold Clay, the body of Julia Elkin, who had supposedly left town many years ago, is discovered buried in the orchard. She never actually made it out of town. The main suspect is Joe, her husband & lovable owner of the local coffee shop. Meanwhile, someone new has moved into town. Octavia Grey is a mink who’s opening up an etiquette school. Now, as much as this series gets described as Twin Peaks meets X, we know darn well that this book isn’t gonna do the actually Twin Peaks thing and have Joe be the killer. All of the other characters are encoded as helpful core cast members, leaving Octavia as literally the only character in the book it could possibly be. So you spend basically the whole book knowing that Octavia is involved somehow and just waiting for the book to connect the dots. If the book had actually subverted those expectations I might have more to say about it. Even if they didn’t make Joe the killer, they could have at the very least subverted the expectation that Octavia was the killer. It could’ve been that Vera really did just get a bad first impression that was later fueled by jealousy & the murder was unrelated to her.

Now to be fair, predicting the outcome of Cold Clay relies somewhat on a knowledge of various cozy mystery tropes. Mirror Lake, however…

I went into Mirror Lake optimistic. The fact that we were getting a look at a new setting & a much larger cast of characters was a good sign. The mystery itself started out intriguing enough: Dorothy Springfield, a rat of spotty reputation, is convinced that her husband Edward has been murdered & replaced by someone who is not him. There’s a lot of ways this can go. Has he been replaced or not? If so, how? Could this all be simply the top layer of a larger conspiracy?

Then you find out pretty early on that Edward had a brother. And it’s just like “Oh. Yeah he totally did it right?” Again, we have a situation with literally one possible suspect. Who else could possibly replace Edward in any convincing way?

The book finally addresses the obvious about halfway through, but adds another theory that I wasn’t thinking of: the possibility that Edward wasn’t replaced but did murder his brother. So for a moment I was hooked again, because this could actually be more than it initially seems. But no, actually. The story toys with the idea of doing something other than what you expect, but we end up where we always knew we’d end up. Vera goes to investigate the whereabouts of Thomas, the brother, and finds that he actually died a few years ago. Except, no he didn’t. They walk that back pretty quick with a plot for Thomas to fake his own death.

The most baffling part at the story comes at the climax. Vera finds out Edward and Thomas were twins, and it’s treated like this huge reveal? But we already knew they were siblings? And again, who else could replace Edward? Yeah it helps catch Thomas in a lie (while posing as Edward, he said Thomas was his older brother) but it doesn’t feel like the crucial lynchpin Vera’s making it out to be? To the point where it comes across like the twin reveal is what brings her solidly to the faked-death theory? But again, we knew they were related already, and it was never in question whether or not they looked alike enough for Thomas to swap with Edward. The specifics don’t feel as consequential in this scenario.

The actual lynchpin reveal is the peanut allergy, or rather, the lack thereof. Early in the book, Vera hired Lefty to break in to the Springfield house to look for a bloodstain Dot said she saw. While there, he sees “Edward” eat a peanut butter sandwich. This is mentioned in the final confrontation, and Dot reveals Edward had a deadly peanut allergy and couldn’t eat peanut butter. This is confirmed by Sun Li, who can back up Dot’s account of an incident at his restaurant where Edward tried some peanut sauce and needed medical attention.

I don’t have anything against predictable mysteries in general. However, there’s a difference between predicting the ending because you picked up on the correct clues, and predicting the ending because you know the tropes. It’s the mysteries I can metagame that I have a bit of an issue with. A good setting and characters can somewhat carry a story like that, but not completely. Cold Clay & Mirror Lake’s setting, characters, and general good vibes carry them all the way to a 3 & 3.5 stars respectively. Mirror Lake was ultimately a bit more engaging, adding in enough new stuff to be more interesting.

Including gay people! Mirror Lake has some gay side characters. They’re two married chipmunks who run a bead and breakfast, possibly the most stereotypical job for gay male characters aside from hair styling and fashion design, but they’re otherwise treated well.

Speaking of couples, something I noticed that was kinda weird is that Vera and… fuck I don’t remember his name. Started with an O? Cop Boyfriend. Are seemingly the only mixed-species couple in the books? Every other couple in the book just happens to be the same species, aside from von Beaverpelt’s affair with the sheep lady in the first book. That’s weird, right? Nobody says anything about it being taboo from what I remember? Maybe it came up in the first book? It just seems like you’d see more.

Anyway. That’s gonna be all for right now. I was about to write something about how it’s sad the series is over even though I had such a mixed time with it, but guess what fuckers! There’s actually 2 more books! And 2 ebook shorts! Which I will probably also read! Eventually.

Until then, fairwell.

title babey