A Really Cute Corpse (1988) by Joan Hess

Farberville, Arkansas, and bookshop owner and all-round sarcastic person Claire Malloy is persuaded by her best friend Luanne to do the last thing that she wants to – help run the local beauty pageant. As she ropes in her daughter and her best friend, she starts to have doubts that she has done the right thing. Luanne needs the help after spraining her ankle after falling over a nail that was unnaturally sticking out of the stage.

More accidents begin to happen, all centred on the reigning Miss Thurberfest, and it looks like the event is being sabotaged. But when murder occurs, it seems that everybody underestimated just how determined someone is to ensure that Miss Thurberfest is no more. But why try and kill someone as they are ending their reign anyway?

Well, I couldn’t resist, could I? I made a comment in my last review that beauty contests had played a prominent role in two recent books, and then I remembered that I had this one sitting on my shelf upstairs. I’d read the first three books in the series in the early days of the blog, got this one, as I’d enjoyed those two. No idea why I stopped – probably not one for beauty pageants, not really my scene.

There is an issue with setting mystery stories around contests – you can’t really have an early murder. It’s either got to be an apparent suicide or just mysterious accidents until a late murder, otherwise the contest would be cancelled and you’d lose the setting of the book.

So yes, the murder is pretty late here. I do like the narrator’s voice, there’s a lot of humour in it, but it does take an age to get to the crime, and it doesn’t take much thought to get an idea of what the pre-murder shenanigans are about.

The other issue with the beauty contest setting is that it’s hard to really include the suspects fall into contestants and others and I think authors struggle to cast suspicion on both camps effectively. To be fair, Hess doesn’t really try, centring everything on the hangers-on, but while there is one good clue, the sort of thing that JJ would like, it gets buried. I don’t quite think the author was that keen on it, as when it’s mentioned at the denouement, it’s not really described properly. I can’t really say more without spoiling matters, but the equivalent would be someone hearing “The killer was Mister Smith” when they actually heard “The killer was Miss Tersmith”, only for the detective to say something like “remember when you thought you heard who the killer was? Well you misheard” without actually spelling  it out – or giving a page reference.

Anyway, the last third or so of the book is like a roulette wheel with suspicion spinning all over the place. Is it solved? Well, yes, but only after Claire basically accuses everybody bar the killer of being the killer, so when she gets to the last suspect, eventually, yes, they try and kill her.

This was a decent enough read – not as strong as the first three in the series – but it passed the time nicely. I’ll be back at some point to Farberville, I’m sure…

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