"The Chocolate Cat Caper" by JoAnna Carl, 2002, Signet, $6.99, softbound, 234 pages: When Lee McKinney moved back to the Great Lakes region to stay with her Aunt Nettie after Lee’s divorce, she had no idea she’d be wrapped up in a murder mystery. It begins when TenHuis Chocolade, Aunt Nettie’s chocolate-making business gets a $2,000 order from summer visitor and vicious lawyer Clementine "Ripper" Ripley.
Lee delivers the chocolates (including chocolate cats custom-made to look like Ripley’s award-winning Birman male, Champion Myanmar Chocolate Yonkers) to Ripley’s extravagant lake view estate for the lawyer’s Animal Rescue League fundraiser.
Lee is immediately beset by the household dysfunction. Ripley’s ex-husband, Joe Woodyard, is there to ask her for money, and Ripley’s irascible assistant, Marion McCoy, only serves to exacerbate matters.
In spite of this, Lee returns for the fundraiser, only to be as shocked as the other guests when Ripley falls from the balcony, dead.
The town gossip immediately starts a rumor that Ripley was poisoned by a cyanide-filled chocolate – a rumor which all too soon proves horrifyingly true. Lee is then determined to clear her aunt’s name.
Aunt Nettie, of course, has made her distaste for Ripley very clear – in fact, she blames the lawyer for her own husband’s death – but she isn’t the only one in town with a grudge. Joe Woodyard certainly had cause to kill Ripley, as did many of the people she ran across in court. Even the town mayor didn’t like her, and more than one person was alone with the chocolates before Ripley tasted them, including Lee.
Carl’s writing is swift and pleasurable, and the book has some interesting, and quite memorable, characters.
Although it lacks the numerous twists and turns some mysteries have, the book is engaging and well worth the read. Lee is beautiful but flawed, with the odd quirk of switching one word for another – "settlement" becomes "sentiment," "Yonkers" becomes "Junker" and in one particularly humorous scene, "Underwood" becomes "Underling."
While this is distracting at first, it soon becomes part of her character.
To add interest, Carl includes a number of "Chocolate Chats," brief wanderings into the history of and facts on chocolate. She also has an eight-question quiz on candy knowledge at the back of the book.
Note: Language may offend some readers.
Lee’s take: Entertaining.
J.J.’s take: A quick read.
LEE AND J.J. MACFADDEN are twins and voracious readers living in Bristol, Tenn. E-mail them at email@example.com.