After 12 consecutive days of sweltering heat and humidity, interspersed with violent nighttime thunderstorms, my brain feels like an egg that's been slowly fried and dried on a dashboard. And we're among the lucky ones; neighbors a few miles to the south have been without power for almost a week. In conditions like this, my TBR pile looks intimidating and unappetizing. I want familiar, comforting amusement, preferably with gelato. Lots of gelato.
Kerry Greenwood's Corinna Chapman series, about an accountant-turned-baker, came as a welcome exception to this general dumbing-down of the genre. Corinna owns and operates Earthly Delights, a small bakery in center city Melbourne, Australia. It is located on the first floor of the Insula, a quirky apartment building designed like an ancient Roman villa. Corinna used the buyout from her accounting job to purchase both the bakery and her apartment, named (not numbered) Hebe, directly above it. She lives with her house cat Horatio, and has two volunteer stray cats that do rodent patrols in the bakery at night.
Corinna operates her bakery with only some part-time counter help, so her days are long. In Earthly Delights, the first of the series, she opens her bakery door early one morning to let her rodent police, Heckle and Jekyll, out and finds a young girl dying in the street, apparently of a drug overdose. While Corinna's quick response saves the girl, similar drug-related deaths begin to occur around the city. Meanwhile, Corinna and her neighbors in the Insula are being harassed by an anonymous religious fanatic, who leaves threatening letters and defaces and damages the shops. While this series has a wonderful cozy feel to it, there is some rough language––it is the inner city, after all––and some sweet, not-too-explicit sex. Corinna and her community remind me of Armistead Maupin's characters in Tales of the City; bittersweet and very funny. I was so enchanted by the setting, characters, and sly Australian humor in Earthly Delights that I have ordered the rest of the series.
But the Chandleresque story Hayden is writing, while amusing, is not nearly as exciting as the real-life events this autumn in rural North Carolina. The escape of the helium-filled life-sized naked dolls on their way to a bachelor party has dire consequences right through Christmas. And the competing Live Christmas Nativity Displays (one with amorous camel) create such an uproar that it's a wonder Hayden can finally solve his case. This wonderful bit of slapstick mystery is the first in a series, and to my mind still the best.
Tey was fascinated by moral and ethical dilemmas, and often put her characters into situations that tested their limits severely. Brat is a basically honest young man caught up in an increasingly intolerable trap of his own making, until the fiction he struggles to maintain smashes against the reality of murder. No humor here, but a story and a mood that linger pleasantly. Maybe next week the weather will break, and the TBR pile will toss up something interesting. Until then, it's nice to have some old friends at hand to revisit.