Murder With Peacocks - Donna Andrews

Once More with Peacocks (Meg Langslow #1)

by Donna Andrews

Recommended by: Murder by Death (Thanks! I think you just got me hooked :) )

 

Meg Langslow is trapped a situation that could make even the most dauntless detective quail: she has somehow ended up as the wedding planner/maid of honor for not one, not two, but three Bridezillas.  All of the weddings will take place within a span of two weeks, and the persnickety brides-to-be are forcing her to organize everything from hoopskirted bridesmaid dresses to Native American herbal marriage rites to ornamental peacocks for the lawn (as just one of “those little details that really make an occasion”). Since all the weddings are taking place in her old hometown, Meg is forced to go back to a place where her quirky relatives rule the roost and “neighborly” is considered a synonym for “nosy.” Yet even her darkest forebodings fail to predict just how eventful her summer is going to be. When one of the wedding guests dies under mysterious circumstances, Meg and her crazy family suddenly find themselves staving off a series of outlandish attacks from a dogged and rather peculiar killer. 

 

Even though I’m more into hardboiled these days, Murder with Peacocks reminds me just how delightful a cozy mystery can be. Meg herself is a wonderful character, down-to-earth, practical, and unfailingly sarcastic. Take her comments on one of the bridesmaid dresses:

“It may look nice, but if I ever wear a dress this low-cut again, I’m going to put a sign at the bottom of my cleavage,” I said. “I’ve seen a bumper sticker with the wording I want: If you can read this, you’re too damn close.”

She is almost unbelievably patient with the onerous demands of her family, but manages to use their selfishness to her advantage. Michael “What-a-Waste” (so called because the whole town believes that that the handsome and blue-eyed newcomer is gay) makes for a wonderful sidekick. He is equally patient and perhaps even more amused by the insanity of Meg’s relatives. There’s Dad, who grows poisonous plants as a way to meld his interests in mysteries, gardening, and medicine, and who mixes interesting sports like “gopher stomping” with a rather disturbing enthusiasm for danger and detection. Then there’s Spike, Michael’s mother’s tiny, fluffy, and utterly vicious dog:

“Mom rescued him from an animal shelter where she was doing some volunteer work.”

“Oh, that’s so nice,” the bridesmaid said.

“She is fond of remarking that he must have been mistreated,” Michael said, “and will mellow when he learns to expect food and kindness instead of ill treatment.”

“Oh, then she hasn’t had him long,” I said.

“Only seven years.”

As if that wasn’t enough, the entire town is obsessed with ensuring that despite the three weddings, Meg doesn’t end up as “never the bride”:

“Matchmaking was a competitive sport in Yorktown and my family’s enthusiasm for it was one of the reasons I had chosen to relocate several hours away.”

Eileen, Meg’s most scatterbrained bride, when she isn’t airily proposing yet another insane and formidably work-intensive wedding idea, keeps attempting to set Meg up with her husband-to-be’s Neanderthal brother Barry, and won’t take no for an answer. Meg’s mother, one of the most demanding brides, refuses to accept that Meg is no longer interested in her previous boyfriend, no matter how stridently she protests:

“I wouldn’t get back together with him if he were the last human male on earth—which would be impossible anyway, because Jeffrey is not human, he is a vaguely humanoid reptile. Please delete Jeffrey from your memory banks. This is a recording.”

Even though I’m generally allergic to romance, I must admit that I quite enjoyed this one, possibly because of the complete dearth of alpha males. My issues with the book were more in line with my usual complaints against cozies: the callousness of the main characters and the weakness and implausibility of the mystery itself. Cozies always tend towards the lighthearted, and despite the rather impressive body count, this one is clearly intended to be particularly amusing and fluffy. As is traditional in cozies, the principal “murderee” is an utterly obnoxious individual and all the other victims are either equally nasty or straightforward caricatures so that the characters can go on with their lives without expending any sympathy for the victims. I see something something unpleasantly callous and shallow in this attitude, but it is precisely how Meg reacts. One of the reasons that I dropped out of the cozy subgenre is that I don’t believe a book where characters die should ever have an unmixedly happy ending. Like many other cozies, the book focuses more on characters and comedy than the quality of the mystery itself. I was a little disgruntled that certain implausibilities and plotholes interfered with my ability to guess the entire solution. Even so, I admit that the utter ridiculousness of the murders added to the humour of the story.

The actual guilty parties are obvious from the outset, mainly because they fit into the cozy villain template: unpleasant and in the way of the main character. Since the only happy ending will be to get rid of them, they're guaranteed to be involved somewhere.

 

Personally, though, I thought Jake's actual motive and method were quite unfair. If she actually had been drugged and bound for hours, surely she would have shown restraint marks and the presence of drugs in her system. It's unfair to ignore details like that, or to ignore the issue of a small man trying to lug a hundred-pound weight into a car. Given that Meg couldn't lift the weight, how was Jake supposed to have lifted the body in and out of the car?

Plus, the blackmail thing is unfair because it is so utterly ridiculous. The absurdity is even recognized in-text:

"Put like that, it seemed so implausible that even Jake was taken aback."

I must agree, and a cheat explanation like that felt most unsatisfactory.

(show spoiler)

 

But even if the mystery itself was a little weak, I just didn't care. I was utterly charmed by the story, not least because of the crazy cast of characters. Meg’s entire family is basically batshit crazy. There are the inveterate nibblers who demolish the buffet before the event even begins. The scarily intense croquet players. The uncle who comes to every function wearing a gorilla suit.

“You mean there’s someone else wearing a gorilla suit? Is it contagious?”

As Meg thinks to herself,

“These were my family. My kin. My blood. I felt a strong, deeply rooted desire to get the hell out of town before they drove me completely over the edge.“

Even the romance struck me as charming. I liked almost all of the characters, and I adored the absurd situations that the ever-put-upon Meg managed to find herself in. Plus, there were the antics of the featherweight streak of vicious fur, a.k.a. Spike the Dog. And just in case the absurdity isn’t quite complete, there are always the peacocks.

“I was finally drifting off to sleep when I heard an unearthly shriek. I started upright in panic before realizing that it was the same damned unearthly shriek we’d been hearing repeatedly for the past several days. “Damn those peacocks,” I muttered. “