Blurb: A writer for Collector’s Weekly, Molly Appleby is in Richmond, Virginia, to cover a taping of the hit antiques show Hidden Treasures. The program features an exhibit of Civil War memorability, and crowds are lining up to making a killing with their old junk.
But there are some real divas in the antiques world, and Hidden Treasures‘s main appraiser, Frank Sterling, is one of them. After he inspects a beautiful eighteen-century desk with unique secret compartments, Molly finds Frank in his car–as dead as Stonewall Jackson. Molly thinks that the antique desk holds the key to this twenty-first century crime. And when a second murder occurs, it’s up to her to collect the clues before more new blood is shed over old rarities. . .
Although A Fatal Appraisal is the second of J B Stanley’s cozy mystery series featuring writer and antiques lover Molly Appleby, readers new to the series will have no difficulty catching up with the (cue voiceover) story so far, as this novel works well as a standalone. We’re introduced to poor overscheduled Molly as she hits the road once more under orders to cover the recording of the travelling television show Hidden Treasures (think Antiques Roadshow, one of my mother’s many beloved home and lifestyle programs). While Molly has a fierce passion for all things antique-related–a fact to which her dwindling bank balance attests–at this point in time she’d like nothing more than to spend some quality time with her maybe-boyfriend Mark. However, her wistful if-onlys are quickly blown out of the water upon meeting the cast of Hidden Treasures, with a dashing Brit called Garrett making her somewhat weak at the knees.
The witty and exuberant Molly settles in quickly, befriending the various cast and crew members over all manner of luncheons, morning teas, and afternoon snacks (Molly’s surname is rather apt, given that her physique, as a result of all of this indulgent munching, somewhat resembles an apple). She quickly finds, though, that there is a complex lattice of tension between her new friends. Like the antiques she loves, just about anything could lurk beneath their patina of wholesome togetherness, and Molly soon finds that the anything in question is perhaps not something she wishes to become to intimately acquainted with.
A Fatal Appraisal has a few major weaknesses, one of which is the heavy-handed foreshadowing and clue-dropping. Like a teacher off-stage at a high school play cueing in a shy child with an obscenely loud whisper, Stanley throat-clearingly points out the murder rather early on, and it’s likely that both the astute and the skim reader will likely figure out the murderer’s identity pretty much right away. Fortunately, while the whodunnit is sorted out rather promptly, the whydunnit is infinitely more interesting, and really helps to carry the narrative to its conclusion (although it must be said that the murderer’s motivation remains a little iffy). While they’re by no means drawn in any great depth, Stanley’s characters are immensely likeable, and it’s rather good fun to watch them gad about drooling over Wedgwood this and Bakelite that in between eating rather obscene amounts of sweets and pastries. Molly in particular is a delight to read, as unlike many a cozy heroine, she spreads the snark rather like one should Vegemite: rarely, and in very small amounts.
The second weakness of A Fatal Appraisal is at the prose level. Stanley (like me, but I’m sans editor, so I’ll run on all I like) likes to jam as much as possible into a sentence, and this unfortunate tendency results in all sorts of snort-worthy ambiguities or things that are just quite painful to read. Take, for example, the following: Mark searched Molly’s grey eyes framed with a sweep of long, dark lashes for a sign of what was going on in her mind. These gems are scattered throughout the book, and they do become maddening after a while. Stanley also has Superman-esque propensity to make giant leaps in point of view, which can disrupt the narrative somewhat.
All in all, though, while A Fatal Appraisal won’t be battling the big guns for any literary prizes, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable read, and there are a number of interesting bits and pieces about collectibles and curios, including an additional narrative occurring during Civil War times, that should be extraneous but that actually make for fascinating reading. This is one to read with a piece of lemon slice and some earl grey tea–but only if it’s in your best china, of course.
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