Tag Archives: South Florida

The queen of the cozy mystery pens another suspense-filled delight

A “Florida Writers” Review by Phil Jason

Easter Hair Hunt, by Nancy J. Cohen. Orange Grove Press. 304 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

Family, friends, and community – that’s what Ms. Cohen’s novels are all about, just as much as they are about crime and its detection. The blend is intoxicating. This latest addition to her Bad Hair Day mystery series is bound to please her large body of readers. Her main character, hair salon owner Marla Vail, once again finds herself running into a crime that she can’t help investigating. After all, when good friend “Blinky” Morris, last seen in an Easter bunny suit during an Easter egg hunt, is suddenly missing, and the bunny suit is found worn by a corpse, what would any self-respecting amateur sleuth do?

Though Ms. Cohen’s narrative takes us to many locations, by far the main setting is Tremayne Manor, a restored, privately owned historic mansion. Blinky, her friend and customer, had agreed to meet her there.

The owner of the mansion, Lacey Tremayne, had turned the estate into a business – a venue for special events like the Easter egg hunt for children with an accompanying fundraiser. The mansion is filled with gorgeous and tempting objets d’art collections. Marla suspects that the expense of purchasing and maintaining this showplace required that it become an income producer as well as a private residence.

There are signs that the balance sheet is on the negative side. In part, this is because the staff is rather large. However, there are signs that money is not being handled well. Could there be some crooked employees? Would any of these speculations shed light on Blinky’s disappearance or on the murder of the person found garbed in Blinky’s bunny suit?

Marla’s husband, police detective Dalton Vail, is soon on both cases: the murder and the disappearance. As ever, he is respective of Marla’s investigative skills while concerned about her safety, especially as she is now in the late stages of pregnancy with their first child.

Soon enough, there are signs of items missing as well as rare items having been replace my imitations. Marla finds her way of asking productive questions, even if they sometimes become accusatory. She thinks out loud with her friends, testing theories about means, motive, and opportunities of staff members and others who are frequently at the mansion. These include Lacey’s secretive son Daniel; Steve, the person who heads up security; the café manager; the beekeeper, those who attend to the estate’s copious plantings; Heather the head docent to oversees tours of the mansion; and many others.

That’s a lot of interviewing to do without getting people upset, but Marla holds her own when the conversation gets testy. Suspense? There is plenty of it, and the suspense thermometer heats up the investigations (both Marla’s and Dalton’s) uncover more and mores surprises.

By the way, there is a second murder.

Marla’s characteristically busy life is complicated by several other concerns beyond her pregnancy. Her mother Anita’s remarriage is pending, Marla will organize much of the Easter holiday feasting, and – don’t you know – she has a business to run. She also has become a kind of second mother to Dalton’s teenage daughter Brianna.

Marla is connected to so many people in so many ways. She is a nexus in the world of her South Florida suburban community, and through her Ms. Cohen brings that imaginary Broward County community fully to life.

In what has become a hallmark of cozy mystery writing, of which Nancy J. Cohen is the undisputed queen, readers will find a lot about preparing food, including an appendix of recipes.

Titles in Ms. Cohen’s “Bad Hair Day” series have been named Best Cozy Mystery by Suspense Magazine, won a Readers’ Favorite gold medal and a RONE Award, placed first in the Chanticleer International Book Awards and third in the Arizona Literary Awards. Nancy’s instructional guide, Writing the Cozy Mystery, was nominated for an Agatha Award, won first place in the Royal Palm Literary Awards and the TopShelf Magazine Book Awards and a gold medal in the President’s Book Awards. Active in the writing community, Nancy has served as president of Florida Romance Writers and Mystery Writers of America Florida Chapter. When not busy writing, she enjoys cooking, fine dining, cruising, and visiting Disney World.

Note: This review was accepted for publication by Florida Weekly,  in my “Florida Writers'” column, but FW has stopped using many freelancers, including yours truly. “Florida Writers” reviews, like this one, will continue to appear on this blog from time to time. 

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Selfless, caring healer is found to be too good for this world

Jordan, by Victoria Landis. BookPainter Press. 355 pages. Trade paperback $16.99.

Do you believe that certain exceptional people have supernatural powers? Healing powers? This novel might just convince you. It will certainly convince you that people who manifest such a gift are likely to be idolized, looked upon with suspicion, considered agents of the devil, exploited, and otherwise tormented. 

Petra Simmons and her younger brother Andy help an attractive young woman who seems disoriented and down on her luck; they try to be of assistance. The woman, they discover, has recently returned to her family after having been missing for three years. She does not feel comfortable with her family, and she has no memory. What she does have is the ability to heal by touching the ill, the crippled or the wounded. The speed of recover for these individuals seems to be influenced by their ethical dimensions. Good folks are more susceptible to her healing power that more mean-spirited ones.

The woman, who is named Jordan, is befriended by Petra, who provides Jordan with shelter and friendship. They form a strong bond. Before long, Andy falls in love with her.


Jordan has a special relationship with birds and other animals. They are sensitive to her special nature and, quite literally, flock to be near her.

Jordan’s memory stays blank for a long time, but her sense of her individuality is strong on many levels. She is driven to use her gift. She is also, at first, something of an innocent – but the ways in which she is perceived and treated test her good nature.

Her presence in Boca Raton, along with bits of fact and tons of rumor, go viral on the social media. People fight for a chance to see Jordan or, better yet, be healed by her. Others would rather denigrate her gift and her motives. Still others, often those already powerful and wealthy, would like to find ways to control her and take advantage of her for their own purposes. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 24, 2019 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 25 issues of the Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, Palm Beach, and Venice editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Jordan

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A Florida farm’s fall festival becomes a setting for murder

Trimmed to Death, by Nancy J. Cohen. Orange Grove Press. 288 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

This is #15 in “The Bad Hair Day Mysteries” that have won Ms. Cohen many fans – and many imitators – over the years. The author continues to maintain her status as the queen of the cozy mystery, a genre that she not only exemplifies in her own fiction but also defines and gives advice about in the expanded second edition of her guidebook “Writing the Cozy Mystery” (Orange Grove Press, 2018). There are four essentials: the sleuth must be both female and an amateur, and readers must encounter that sleuth fitting her crime-solving into a larger, multifaceted life within a well-defined community.  

Marla Vail, who runs a hair salon in the South Florida town of Palm Haven, is all excited about participating in a fall harvest festival sponsored by Kinsdale Farms, located at the western edge of Broward County. Local business bring attention to themselves by sponsoring competitions that attract entrants who sign up months in advance. The general public just loves the goings-on, the food, and the high spirits.

Marla has entered the baking competition, hoping that her coconut fudge pie will take the prize.


Ms. Cohen introduces a very large cast of characters who are involved in the festival in some way. One, Francine Dodger, runs a magazine, another is a chef, and another is a food critic. The festival is a time for people to re-acquaint and to network. It’s also a time for fun.

Francine has set up a Find Franny contest for the festival, a kind of scavenger hunt that involves collecting cards, getting each stamped by answering a question correctly, and being the first to report to Franny with all of them stamped.

Only problem is that when Franny is found, she is dead: murdered!  

Marla’s husband – Detective Dalton Vail – will lead the murder investigation. Yes, you guessed it. Marla will be very busy doing her share of the investigation in her own way. For Dalton, it’s just another case – one of many that will occupy him every day and often for long hours.

For Marla, it’s a task (more like an addiction) squeezed in along with running her business, mothering Dalton’s 18-year-old daughter Brianna, running the household, networking all over own, dealing with her parents, etc., etc. Meanwhile, she is concerned about her clock running out before having a child by Dalton. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the November 29, 2018 Naples Florida Weekly and Bonita Springs editions, and the December 5 Fort Myers edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Trimmed to Death

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When you hear voices, is someone there?

Flame Vine: His Voices, by Charles Porter. Privately published. 338 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

This, the second volume in Mr. Porter’s The Hearing Voices Series, is not like anything else I’ve come across in my many decades of avid book reading. Really! The author provides a truly original voice, a distinctive cast of characters, and an East-Central to Southern Florida landscape that sweeps upward from norther Palm Beach County, touching Wellington, Stuart, Belle Glade, and perhaps Mr. Porter’s home town of Loxahatchee. The narrative has the smell of the burning sugar cane fields up that way, and its characters engage with a lot of other substances that are turned to smoke or imbibed in some other way.

The novel portrays the cultural scene of this swath of Florida as being in many ways representative of the U.S.  during the second half of the 20th century. It opens in 1950 and takes us into the life of Aubrey Shallcross, his friends, and his resident voices through the early 1980s—when things change for the worse as an age of materialism seems to override an age that fostered various types of spirituality.

Did I say “resident voices?” Well yes. Aubrey has been hearing voices since childhood, living with them, confiding in them, even learning from them. The primary voice, capable of positive influence, is Triple Suiter, affectionately called Trip. Other voices – or presences – are Amper Sand and a darker presence called Slim Hand. Traditional psychiatric medicine would call Aubrey’s condition schizophrenia, but Charles Porter is wary of this label to the point of suggesting that no treatment need be recommended. Aubrey is a fully functioning individual whose unconventional, unwilled, capacities extend rather than limit his sense of the world and his humanity.


He is a member of a community that not only tolerates him but finds him to be a steadying anchor. The gang that meets at the Blue Goose for nourishment and alcoholic refreshments – and every kind of narcotic – is a group given to excess. While some, like murdering vigilante Sonny, who stuffs his dead victims in refrigerators, are truly over the top, they are nonetheless reasonably loyal to one another. . . .

To read the entire review, as published in the August 8, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 9 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach additions, click here: Florida Weekly – Flame Vine


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A new kind of sleuth joins the noir patrol

No Regrets, Coyote, by John Dufresne. W. W. Norton. 352 pages. Hardcover $25.95.

One reason that I found so much to enjoy in this highly original version of Florida noir is that the author seems to have had a blast writing it. It’s as if he responded to the challenge, perhaps offered around the table at a writers’ retreat or watering hole, of placing “No Regrets, Coyote,” a phrase from a Joni Mitchell lyric, into a sentence and then writing a novel titled with the same phrase.  NoRegretsCoyote

Mr. Dufresne’s novel is filled with the oddball names of its large cast of characters, outlandishly funny puns, all kinds of lists, and friendly symbolism. By naming his neighboring South Florida towns Eden and Melancholy, the author tells all we need to know about the dream and the reality of a material culture sleaze factory that one can, ironically, hold so dear. But he will show us much more.

Meet protagonist Wylie “Coyote” Melville. Wylie, who has a practice as a family and individual therapist, also does volunteer forensic consulting for the Eden Police Department. His special skill, as he puts it (he’s the narrator), is his ability to “read faces and furniture. I can look at a person, at his expressions, his gestures, his clothing, his home, and his possessions, and tell you what he thinks, if not always what he is thinking.” Interesting disclaimer!

In his private practice, Wylie helps his clients “shape their lines into stories, so that the lives finally make some sense. A lack of narrative structure, as you know, will cause anxiety.” Who is Wylie, or Mr. Dufresne, talking to here? Other writers?  Book reviewers? How much anxiety will he treat us to?



The case at hand seems to be a murder-suicide: “Five bodies, one weapon, one suspect, much blood,” says Detective Sergeant Carlos O’Brien as he summons Wylie over the phone. Wylie is suspicious of the confession/suicide note typed by one Chafin R. Halliday.

Oh, yeah, it’s Christmas eve.

The novel progresses with Wylie being able to do some investigating, though often roadblocks are set in his path. Just as often, his pursuit of the truth about this massacre is taken off track by the vagaries of Wylie’s own life: episodes involving his family – especially his obnoxious sister Venise and his demented father; episodes involving a wide range of nutty friends and acquaintances; and episodes involving his therapy practice. All provide opportunities for Mr. Dufresne to expand his dazzling portrait of the South Florida milieu. . . .

To enjoy the entire review, as it appears in the August 7, 2013 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the August 8 Bonita Springs edition, and the August 15 Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Dufresne 1  and here: Florida Weekly – Dufresne 2

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Birdie Dewey’s South Florida: from wilderness to paradise

“Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier,” by Ginger L. Pedersen and Janet M. De Vries. The History Press. 128 pages. $19.99.

The authors bring us on a delightful journey into the history of that part of Florida defined largely (in the nineteenth century) by the borders of Lake Worth. It truly was a frontier. Sketchily populated and without much of a commercial or transportation infrastructure, this beautiful but isolated region appealed to only the hardiest souls. Fortunately for the authors, they found a magnificent focal point in the lives and writings of two such pioneers, Fred and Birdie Dewey, providing readers with a general story of the region’s gradual development anchored by a specific, personal story.  

The opening chapters outline the lineage of Fred Dewey’s lineage and Byrd Spilman. Each person’s family gave rise to many prominent American citizens. Birdie, in fact, was a great-niece of President Zachary Taylor. Ms. Pedersen and Ms. De Vries trace generations of the families’ activities in Kentucky and Illinois, where Fred became a notary public for the town of Salem. In 1876 or 1877, Fred and Birdie met and were soon married. He was thirty-nine and she was eighteen years younger. Fred’s later work included being a bank clerk. They both loved pets, and as they never had any children, pets played a large part in their family life.

Birdie was a well-educated book lover, and she would became a productive, successful writer. In fact, the narrative of Fred and Birdie that the authors have constructed depends largely on three published novels by Birdie, all set in Florida, which they treat as disguised autobiography. Fortunately, the authors bolster these sources with many others, rendering their autobiographical readings of the novels plausible.

Fred’s physical discomfort in Illinois winters was one motivating factor in the couples’ decision to consider a relocating to Florida. More importantly, they were both adventurous, independent spirits. They had energy and imagination. They wanted to be part of something new and to test themselves. Homesteading in an unsettled patch of Florida seemed to be just the right thing. The Deweys settled on the Lake Worth area after exploring several more northerly locations.

DeVries and Pederson in front of Birdie Dewey portrait

In treating the Deweys’ role as settlers, Pedersen and De Vries detail the history of the region leading up to the Deweys’ arrival on the scene, then continue by stressing the hardships they had to face. Readers receive vivid images evoking the material culture of the time. Once committed to Lake Worth (the lake – there was no town), they built several homes, bought and sold large property tracts, and generally did quite well for themselves.  In the early decades of their Florida lives, Fred and Birdie dealt with a remoteness and isolation that made it very difficult to obtain necessary supplies. Transportation was mostly along rivers and the lake. Merchants were few and far between. There was little social intercourse and no amenities of higher culture. For Birdie, this isolation was depressing. . . .

To see this review in its entirety, as it appears in the October 31, 2012 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 1 edition of the Naples and Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Pedersen and DeVries

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John Dufresne’s “Requiem, Mass.”

John Dufresne’s latest novel is hard to classify. In an age of genre fiction, a time when a novel pretty much has to be a romance or a thriller or a something even more specialized, like a police procedural, Dufresne’s Requiem, Mass . – like Dufresne’s earlier work – is simply an original. It is a sparkling blend of fine writing, brilliant story-telling, and dazzling insights into the human heart.

Dufresne fields a question at NPC Authors & Books Festival, April 2009.

Dufresne fields a question at NPC Authors & Books Festival, April 2009.

Set primarily in a large town in central Massachusetts, this novel explores the varying capacities for self-knowledge and relationship among the members of a highly dysfunctional family. The novel’s narrator, the grown up version of its central character – Johnny -is a writer struggling to find the thread of his next book, as well as the momentum to push it forward. He seizes upon something based on his own life (we’ll never know the exact proportions of memory and invention), and stumbles along . The narrative takes us from the time of “his” mother’s mental breakdown (not the first, but perhaps the most memorable) into Johnny’s early teen years in abundant detail, tracing only briefly the adult decades that bring him to his writing life in South Florida and to the current project.

Though it is true, as many reviewers have agreed, that the book is often hilarious and witty, for this reader the dominant notes have to do with sadness, loneliness, and yearning. Dufresne describes a family in which children are neglected and even brutalized by ineffectual parents and a strict parochial school in which there are far more sticks than carrots. The mother, Frances, is lost in a world of paranoia. She believes that her children are often replaced by imposters from outer space, and she treats Johnny and his sister Audrey as threats rather than as desired responsibilities. She is simultaneously a cruel predicament and an absence, as she regularly withdraws into her fantasies or her medication. Her husband, a long distance truck driver always on the run from the madness he’d otherwise have to face on a daily basis, is revealed to be a man who has secretly fostered other families and built a world of lies. He is even more of an absence than the mother, and there is little to choose between his lies and her fantasies.

A large cast of quirky neighbors, family friends, and relatives populates Requiem and its surroundings, people who are often a solace to Johnny, even though each has his or her own measure of oddness.

Dufresne’s sympathy for his grotesques is conveyed in a style that makes sadness shimmer with promise, despair glimmer with hope, and yearning glow under the ashes of strained half-measures – incomplete gestures of recognition and concern. The author makes us feel at home in the absurd; eccentricities of character and social situation never seem beyond the realm of possibility. Human connection is everywhere longed for, feared, thwarted, and cautiously pursued.

Requiem, Mass. is also a novel of time and place. Dufresne guides us with a sure hand through the look and feel of working class America from the late sixties through the following decades. His landscapes and city-scapes are seasoned with brand names, song lyrics, and the detritus of popular culture that is so all-encompassing and so bitterly comforting.

For writers, the passages that treat the near present, the time of the book’s composition, are of special interest. Though his art mystifies, Dufresne’s portrait of his Johnny the Writer adult character is gorgeously demystifying.  No one puts this artist on a pedestal, and certainly not the writer himself. The brilliant juxtaposition of what’s going on in his daily life as he pushes this novel forward, and what is going on in the re-imagined past, is a remarkable bonus.


In this novel, Dufresne’s story-telling defies strict chronology. It’s not just the late point of attack – essentially beginning with the decision to write the book. It’s the regular interface between distant past (itself not always lined up chronologically) and ongoing present. But it’s more than this. Though he might not agree, for me Dufresne’s book validates my own favorite notion of plot – it’s not ordering what happens to the character(s) – it’s ordering what happens to the reader. And plenty happens.

Requiem, Mass.  is a must journey for writers who read, for readers who write, and for all who love language and story-telling.


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