When Susan Bernhard made her publishing debut with The Ginseng Conspiracy, the first book in the Kay Driscoll series, she entered an arena already crowded with cozy mystery writers, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, M.C. Beaton, Alexander McCall Smith, and the great dame of them all, Agatha Christie. Bernhardt secured her place among these lauded authors with a flowing narrative that presented a nuanced plot full of twists and turns, likeable characters, and strong descriptions. The books that followed Ginseng in the Driscoll series, Murder Under the Tree, Murder by Fireworks, and Paradise Can be Murder, earned Bernhardt many accolades and deepened her reputation as a first-class cozy mystery writer.
In her latest installment of the Driscoll series, Murder Misunderstood, Bernhard doesn’t disappoint. Besides using Kay as the sleuth, a retired nurse who has become adept at solving crimes, Bernhardt brings back characters we have come to love from her previous works, sexy Elizabeth, quirky Deirdre with a penchant for everything feng shui, a young character, Janey, who was first introduced in Book 2, Kay’s husband, and others, including Marissa of Marissa’s Patisserie fame. They have become intrinsic in helping Kay solve crimes in Sudbury Falls, a town that is to murders what honey is to flies.
In Murder Misunderstood, Bernhard writes about a mysterious woman who moves to Sudbury Falls and has never met a “friend she hasn’t disliked.” Immediately peace is disrupted when rumors circulate that this woman has planted a garden of poisonous flowers and plants, and neighbors complain about wild parties she holds on weekends.
Curious about the gossip surrounding this enigmatic woman, Kay and her husband, Phil, attend one of those parties where they encounter an inebriated and boisterous crowd. Colorful as that scene was, it was a visit between Kay and Deirdre that remained indelible in this reader’s mind. Over tea, while discussing the dismissive reaction of the neighbor when they offered her as a welcome gesture one of Marissa’s patisserie’s special creation, the friends wonder what would make this woman plan a poisonous garden. While they chat, from loudspeakers the Flower duet from the opera Lakme by Delibes serenades them. This is one of the most glorious duets in the opera repertoire, sung in close harmony by two sopranos. The effect is almost like a lullaby as the singers express their longing for taking a stroll down to the river where the jasmines grow among the roses. The beauty projected by the music initially feels like an oxymoron given the poisonous garden Kay and Deirdre are discussing; however, this is, once again, Ms. Bernhardt’s skillful juxtaposition of yin and yang, the beautiful and the ugly, the exquisite perfume of the flowers represented in the song versus the ugliness of the lethal garden that eventually proves its owner’s undoing.
When the garden’s owner is discovered dead by poison, the number of suspects is long because of the extensive list of enemies the deceased has made in the short time she’s been in Sudbury Falls. Kay, with the help of her friends, decides to investigate and Bernhardt keeps us in suspense until the end when the killer is at last revealed.
One of the strengths in Bernhardt’s writings is her descriptive narrative coupled with her ability to bring the personal lives of her characters into the story to enrich the plot. In Murder Misunderstood, we share the joy of Kay ‘s learning she will become a grandmother, and we agonize over the ups and downs of Janey’s relationship with a classmate (her teenage crush) as Bernhardt weaves through a couple of the chapters a Halloween horror story Janey learns from her friend.
From the opening of Murder Misunderstood, Bernhard captured my attention. In fact, I stayed up all night to finish the book. At the end, I had a sense of serenity, a feeling that all was well in Sudbury Falls. Before retiring, I played Lakme’s Flower duet, enjoying the beauty of the music while my mind conjured images of jasmines and roses growing by the river.
Such pleasant dreams as I thought that Bernhardt’s productive career as a cozy writer was not over with the fifth installment in the Driscoll series. Bernhard has already written another cozy¸ Manhattan Murder, with Irina Curtis, a retired ballerina as the sleuth. I get a feeling this too will become a series. And whether it is Irina or Kay as the sleuth, I’m certain another Bernhardt gem awaits our future. It’ll be none too soon.