Strong Spirits
by Alice Duncan, historical (2003)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7517-0


This book is not a romance novel. It's actually a historical cozy mystery. The Zebra people must be busy examining their own backside with a torchlight when they labeled this book as "Romance" on the spine. Having said that, I actually find myself enjoying Strong Spirits. I'm dreading the usual Alice Duncan/Emma Craig trademark idiot heroines and slapstick plots, but this book is pretty enjoyable.

Set in Pasadena during the 1920s, our heroine Daisy Gumm Majesty earns a living as "Desdemona", mistress of the occult. You want to talk to your dead Aunt Gretna and tell her what a horrid old bitch she was - things you never dare tell her during the death watch - you call Desdemona and she'll put on a show. Yes, put on a show - she's a fake. Of course, she will rationalize that she's actually doing people a great favor: the First World War has ended, but people are still suffering from the aftermath. Her own husband Billy went to war and comes home wheelchair-bound. Desdemona makes a great living offering comfort to those seeking amusement or comfort from a recent bereavement.

In this story, problems begin when Desdemona's rich employer Mrs Kincaid's family problems end up dragging Mrs Majesty here into the mess as well. The daughter is arrested during a speakeasy. A messy embezzlement case will implicate Mr Kincaid. The detective, Sam Rondo, will coerce Daisy into doing his dirty work for him, ie spying on the Kincaids.

Don't expect Sam and Daisy to do the nasty - Daisy is married to Billy and in the end, she remains true and devoted to him, even if his insecurities and moods make it very hard for her at times. The mystery isn't anything close to being first-rate, but the characters are okay. The Kincaids are a moderately colorful bunch - the gay son and the kind but self-absorbed Mrs Kincaid and her ridiculous ways, especially - while Daisy, who tends to be a little on the silly side at times, is very likeable as the narrator of the story. She is silly and she tends to be on the self-righteous side at times, but by the end of the book, she displays a degree of maturity that balances some of her sillier antics in the story. She has an appealing self-effacing wit and through her, the class differences and the excesses and eccentricities of the era come to life pretty well. Billy, an underdeveloped character, seems interesting, especially when towards the end he befriends Sam. Likewise, the gay man Harold makes the macho straight men Sam and Billy very uneasy, but the author hints that this may change in the future. Whether this means that Sam and Billy will finally elope and Harold will be the priest or the three men will be casual buddies, who knows?

Daisy has a nice voice in this story and there are a lot of promises in Alice Duncan's new historical mystery series. If she can keep up the pace and rhythm while keep exploring the diverse possibilities the 1920s have to offer, she may have a winner in her hands.

Rating: 82


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