Crime, cryptograms, and killer conundrums abound for the Puzzle Lady in the fourth installment of the series USA Today raves is “a fun series for mystery fans and cruciverbalists!” It looks like wedding bells again for the much-married Cora Felton when distinguished widower Raymond Harstein III moves into town and makes a play for the Puzzle Lady. That is, it does until the mail brings puzzling cryptograms, which, when deciphered, warn Cora off the match. Or do they? As the puzzles keep coming, a killer’s game must be played in earnest, and it’s up to the Puzzle Lady to solve the riddle—if anyone is going to live to make it to the altar! From the Hardcover edition.
Hall's light touch continues to entertain, although Cora Felton's "secret," which wasn't well-hidden in her debut in A Clue for the Puzzle Lady (1999), is so worn now as to be completely transparent in this fifth adventure. Cora is the "Puzzle Lady" to admirers of her syndicated crosswords, but her niece, Sherry Carter, is the real author of the puzzles. The fiction, begun when Sherry needed to hide her identity from an abusive ex-husband, is constantly being tested in the little town of Bakerhaven, Conn., where they live. Cora's real forte is solving murders, and quiet Bakerhaven has had murders and puzzles aplenty since aunt and niece took up residence there. The usual players assume their accustomed roles here, from clueless police chief Dale Harper to reporter Aaron Grant. Oft-married Cora is being wooed again, this time by Raymond Harstein III, whose past is a bit clouded. Sherry's best friend, Brenda, asks her to be maid of honor-only her groom is Sherry's abusive ex, Dennis Pride. Hall keeps the complications coming fast, as Sherry tries to cope with a proposed double wedding that could prove doubly disastrous. As always, puzzles, this time cryptograms, play an integral part in the mystery. Hall's trademark word play and gift for creating eccentric characters remain as sharp as ever. (Dec. 2) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 27, 2004
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Excerpt from With This Puzzle, I Thee Kill by Parnell Hall
On the morning the slavers came, the children were looking for treasure.
Swept up in their purpose, they didn't see the mast of the corsair galley, all but obscured by the high rocks surrounding the cove where the ship had anchored in the night.
They didn't see the dead sentry hanging upside down on the watchtower. It was Bartholomeo, an older boy who lived on their own street, his throat cut deep as he slept, cut from ear to ear. His blood had already baked dry on the platform from which he was to have sounded the alarm, a platform from which his killers had stolen several planks of wood. The children didn't see Bartholomeo because they were hiding from him, keeping to the deep gullies or crouching behind the low stone walls that separated fields so dry and barren that even the crows didn't bother to scavenge there anymore. As long as they stayed behind those walls they knew Bartholomeo couldn't glimpse them and spoil their plans. He would do that, and just for spite: Bartholomeo was plain mean.
They couldn't see or hear the stream of galley slaves snaking along the ravine a hundred paces to the east, men laboring in silence as they hauled water beneath the watchful eyes of their guards.
And they couldn't smell the galley, because the wind was at their backs, a majjistral blowing from the northwest. With the right winds the smell of a galley preceded the sight, the stench an unmistakable herald of danger. Had they smelled it, they would have known the scent of doom. There would have been time to fear, time to flee.
Today, however, they smelled nothing but Maria's dreams.
"Father's going to whip us," Nico said solemnly. He was breathing heavily, struggling to keep up with his sister as she led him toward the southern coast of Malta. The limestone over which they ran baked under a sun that was already scorching despite the early hour. "We're supposed to be cleaning out the dung pit."
"He'll never know," Maria said. On bare feet she moved like quicksilver over the rocks, threading her way barefooted between stands of prickly pear. She was thirteen but small for her age, athletic and lean, her figure as yet betraying no sign that she was a girl. Her clothes were worn through in spots, and she carried a knife in her belt. Her hair was cut short and ragged, like a boy's. Her face was smeared with grime, her skin deeply browned by the sun, her green eyes lit with determination and adventure. "He's busy today, seeing the capumastru for a job building one of the knights' new forts. Besides, I'm not giving up until we've found it. If you'd rather slop shit than dig treasure, suit yourself. I don't care."
They'd been two long days at the dung pit beneath their house, hauling out pail after pail of human and animal excrement to be spread over a rocky field outside the village where their family tried to grow vegetables. They emptied the pit twice a year, when the flies in the kitchen got too thick. Except for the flies, Maria saw no point to it. Nothing had grown in that field for two years. It was the same all over Malta. The rains hadn't come, and there had been no grain from Sicily. Her own baby sister and brother, twins, had starved to death, like half the babies in the village of Birgu that year. "Nothing grows in Malta but rocks and misery," her mother often said. "Nothing but dung, that is. If only there were a market for it, we would be rich beyond dreams." It was perhaps the only matter in which Maria agreed with her mother. Spreading the dung was pointless, just another of Father's nasty chores. It was better to be here, doing something that mattered.
"We've been looking forever and we haven't found it," Nico grumped.
"We'll find it today. But you can go back if you want."
He would never go back, of course. He idolized his sister, who was the sunrise in his life. She protected him from the anger of their father and the despair of their mother and all the troubles of a hostile world. She wasn't like the other girls her age, not at all. Most of them covered their faces with barnuzi and stayed indoors. "A woman should be seen but twice in public," Maria's mother said. "The day she is married and the day she is buried." Maria never listened. She was a tomboy with a hot temper, and she vowed never to hide behind a barnuza. The other girls shunned her. She shunned them back. That suited Nico because it left him someone to run with, someone who knew things and told stories and climbed rocks and hunted treasure. If she asked, he would follow her over the edge of the cliffs, even though such devotion often meant trouble for him with their father.
"I just don't want to get whipped."
"There are worse things."
"Like what?" Nico could feel the leather of his father's belt on his backside. There wasn't much worse than that.
"Like spending your life hauling shit. Like letting someone else find the treasure. Here we are," she said.
They'd arrived at their private place, a series of ruins situated on a plateau overlooking the sea. They'd never seen another soul there. Dust carried on the winds of eons had buried most of it, but there remained great megaliths of stone, marking a temple built by some ancient and forgotten race. A few stone columns still rose to the sky, while others had toppled into a confused jumble. There remained subterranean chambers and innumerable places to hide. They'd explored much of it, crawling through openings and burrowing beneath slabs, sometimes discovering new passageways and rooms merely by moving rubble and digging a little.
Somewhere in that labyrinth, carefully concealed in a box or a pot or behind a stone panel, Maria was certain there was treasure. Half a century earlier the Jews had been expelled from Spain and her domains, including Malta. During their flight from persecution, they were believed by many to have buried their uncountable riches, intending to return for them later. So far all Maria had found were seashells and some old bones, but even without the hope of treasure she'd have come anyway. She loved the ruins. There was a purity to them, from their smell to their glorious view of the sea to their telltale hints of glories past. She felt the presence and spirit of the people who built them, people who had money and enough food and wore clothes even more magnificent than the Knights of St. John, who strutted like peacocks through the streets of Birgu. These people had lived well, dancing and laughing and holding great feasts. She told Nico all about them as they dug at the bases of the columns and turned over stones.