22668776Never judge a book by its cover, as the old adage goes, and truth to tell I’ve been fooled in the past by not following that sage advice. Not so in this case, with Connie Archer’s charming cozy mystery, Ladle to the Grave, the fourth installment in her NYT bestselling Soup Lover’s Mystery series. I discovered this find while browsing through the mystery/crime section of Book Club Reading List. I was immediately pulled in by the lovely turquoise soup tureen on the cover, with its enticing fumes wafting into the air and drifting out into the green garden, where a number of mysterious well dressed figures hovered under the tall trees.

This delightful mystery is classified as a ‘cozy,’ which usually means it takes place in a small village peopled by eccentric characters, some loving, some not and  where everyone knows everyone, as is the case here in Snowflake, Vermont. The central characters are named Lucky and Jack, Elizabeth and Elias, Sophie and Sage. These are good, decent caring people of the kind most of us know everyday of our lives, another characteristic of ‘the cozy’. Some of them have experienced some hard knocks in life – such as the death of parents in a tragic car accident, a father who disappears and abandons his children, a brother killed. They have survived these events by caring for one another in a supportive community that helps them to keep darkness at bay. This is what I most appreciated about the book – it’s verisimilitude in creating a world so recognizably human. I grew up in a small village town very much like Snowflake – Mill Valley, California, across the bay from San Francisco, and Ms. Archer has created a world that I found instantly believably, Not coy, not quaint, not farfetched and sentimental – simply human and very ‘normal’. These are good people who – though shocked by their encounters with human evil and duplicity – never lose their faith in the essential worth of life.

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“Snowflake’ Vermont – or a town much like it.

The book opens with a group of women celebrating May Day in the forest, by honoring Mother Earth and St. Walpurgis, the woman who inspired the ceremonies of Walpurgisnacht. And with that introduction, we know that we in a world of ‘alternative’ spiritualities, one that affirms women’s rightful place in honoring the sacred. This story is going to be ‘different’. The women drink a cup of herbal tea as a sacred potion, and one of the women, Agnes Warner, suddenly drops dead. And so the mystery begins. A short time later (still right at the beginning, so I’m not really spoiling the suspense) another body is found floating in a stream, it’s face bludgeoned beyond recognition. And therein lies the substance of the plot. Who killed them and why and are their deaths connected?

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Celebrating Walpurgisnacht

At the heart of the mystery is the mysterious potion the women drank in the forest – a herbal brew made from natural herbs gathered in the forest by Jack, Lucky’s grandfather and a herbal specialist. Jack manages the Spoonful Soup Shop owned by his granddaughter. The resident chef, Sage is engaged to be married to Lucky’s former best friend, Sophie. And so we go from women in the forest celebrating the divine feminine to natural herbal remedies and fresh homegrown ingredients in the Spoonful Soup Shop’s daily servings. This is the gentle alternative world of spirit, mind and body that any ‘New Age’ Californian such as myself would instantly recognize. Ms.Archer has made this world completely believable with nary a crack in the fictional dream. I was completely charmed and touched by these people and their innate goodness, as they care for each other during these trying times of murder and suspicion in the lovely village of Snowflake, Vermont. Life is a mystery, human evil even more so, but life goes on and in our care for one another we affirm a mystery greater than the dark negative.

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The village center of Mill Valley, California. What’s Starbucks doing there?

The plot is handled with skillful intelligence, each new revelation or possibility or suspicion juxtaposed with descriptions of the local village life, the natural food on hand at the Spoonful Soup Shop, the making of Sophie’s wedding dress, the anxious flutterings of the Congregational minister. He is shocked, simply shocked, by the pagan orgies going on in the forest. Perhaps God has punished these wicked women for straying so far from the path of righteousness. Sounds like a crude caricature, right? Not at all. Even the Congregational minister is embraced in all of his eccentric limitations – and invited to officiate at Sophie’s wedding. This is a community that cares and heals and embraces one and all, even those individuals who are a daily trial to our souls.

Three quarters of the way through the book, utterly charmed by the story and warmed by the characters’ humanity, I had decided to give the book a decent four star rating. Then I came to the denouement and all I have to say is ‘WoW’, if I can be forgiven the crude Americanism.  The pivotal revelation that finally unravels the mystery is a simple oversight or failure of memory on the part of one of the characters – and it is completely plausible. How often have we been disappointed when reading a ‘good’ mystery, only to be let down at the end by a revelation that seems to the reader like ‘cheating’ on the part of the author – a secret kept from us that should have been obvious to everyone long before the end. But this revelation was masterly. I bought it without a hitch. And it leads the reader to  certain conclusions – which are themselves mistaken, as the mystery further unravels. Superbly done without once breaking the fictional spell.

The novel ends, after its shocking conclusion, with the celebration of Sophie and Sage’s wedding. The community gathers its own together in a fitting healing ceremony that celebrates a new beginning – and affirms once again that, despite all the darkness and pain, life is infinitely worth living. The spiritual dimension of the story is not hammered home to us readers, but it is definitely there as a gentle presence in the background.

Well done, Connie Archer.Five stars and a heartfelt thanks to a master storyteller. I will definitely pick up another of your Soup Lover’s mysteries. And I’ve just now bought a copy of The Madness of Mercury, the first installment in your new Zodiac Mysteries series (written as Connie di Marco).

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In case you missed the links:

Connie Archer’s Soup Mysteries webpage.

Connie di Marco’s Zodiac Mysteries webpage

Connie Archer’s Amazon page.