Modern heroine is missing from 'That Old Black Magic'

Mary Jane Clark's latest Wedding Cake Mystery is no beignet

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The "cozy" is a sub genre of the mystery novel that harks back to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple series and brings to mind the TV incarnations of Jessica Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote." Most often, the author and the fictional sleuth are female, and the books are aimed at a traditional-minded female readership. The murders are rather civilized, and the books contain minimal gore, violence or profanity and no explicit sex scenes.

Most of the characters are likable -- even the perp, much of the time -- and the heroine, usually an amateur sleuth who may practice some sort of respectable middle-class profession, solves the crime by deduction and psychological savvy, getting herself into a close call situation from which we know she will be extricated near the end. Often the setting is a small town, where the police force is either stupid or ineffective.

Among the most successful creators of cozy mysteries in recent times have been Mary Higgins Clark (born 1929) and her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark. Mary Jane Clark, author of "That Old Black Magic," is the ex-daughter-in-law of Mary Higgins Clark, and her work falls neatly into the Clark family tradition.

By Mary Jane Clark
William Morrow ($25.99).

These books are not for every reader. Many readers -- male and female -- will find them cloying and simplistic. And to be politically correct, it must be stated that not all 21st-century women will be enthralled with the books or the genre. The women depicted are decidedly un-liberated, in sharp contrast to the modern, hard-boiled protagonists of Sue Grafton or Sara Paretsky.

Piper Donovan, in the fourth of Mary Jane Clark's Wedding Cake Mysteries, bakes cookies and makes her living decorating wedding cakes, an art she has learned very well from her parents, who have a successful business in Hillwood, N.J. Piper's original designs have won her a trip to New Orleans and the opportunity to work with star pastry chef Bertrand Olivier and his wife, Marguerite, owners of a renowned bakery in the French Quarter.

Piper is also suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. She had been temporarily paralyzed after being fed a poisonous blowfish by a murderer in Ms. Clark's previous Wedding Cake Mystery and is still recovering, psychologically.

Conveniently, Piper has a protective boyfriend up North who happens to work for the FBI. Incongruously, she is simultaneously trying to become an actress, and in a brief, extraneous subplot here, she lands a role in a film starring Channing Tatum and being filmed in New Orleans. When she does a scene in the film where she is buried alive, she gets "the terrifying feeling of not being able to move," and the astute reader will know that something similar will happen to her for real before the novel is over.

Barring the small town setting, all the elements of the cozy genre are present in "That Old Black Magic," and the plot goes pretty much according to familiar formulas. Piper is young, pretty, respectable and smart, but she is never allowed to show her sexuality, except as reflected by the mild advances of a few unsavory characters who approach her and are swiftly -- too easily -- rejected.

When she feels threatened, she calls the boyfriend back home, who urges her to return when he learns she may be in danger. Of course, Piper refuses to leave (otherwise there'd be no story to follow), and they have a small lovers' quarrel over it. She does other stupid things along the way, such as telling one suspect that she heard him having an argument with the victim shortly before the time of the murder.

The successive murders of three townsfolk follow the old nursery rhyme about butcher, baker and candlestick maker. By coincidence, one character happens to be doing his master's thesis on nursery rhymes (red herring No. 1). Each murder is accompanied by voodoo symbols -- hence, the novel's title -- and there are two locals who happen to practice voodoo as their religion (red herring No. 2). Although they might be the obvious candidates for the murderer, it should be clear to all but the most naive reader that they are not. Because Piper discovers one of the dead bodies, she becomes a person of interest to the New Orleans police as well.

Numerous details are included to appeal to female readers, among them references to Piper's hairstyle, her dress colors, her wardrobe, and a mouth-watering recipe for Boulangerie Betrand Beignets at the end. Unlike the novels of author's venerable ex-mother-in-law, the present work includes almost no element of suspense -- unless you're fooled by her predictable, and remarkably un-scary, encounter with the real murderer just before the end.

For fans of the cozy, "That Old Black Magic" is glibly written, swiftly paced, and filled with colorful, if stereotyped, supporting characters. Any further resemblance to a believable contemporary crime story, however, is coincidental.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.

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