(Jump down to read a review of Hearse of a Different Color)
"Murder in the Hearse Degree"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 31, 2003)
I am going to try to make this brief, otherwise I'm afraid I'd just be repeating much said in my previous reviews as to what I like about this series. So I'll say this right off, Tim Cockey amazingly improves with each novel in this series, or so it seems as I'm reading each book. So it shouldn't be a surprise that I think Murder in the Hearse Degree is the best one yet. You should read this series in order because each one is terrific and to fully appreciate the reoccurring characters, it's best to meet them properly. Besides they are loads of fun.
In this latest, a former girlfriend of Hitchcock Sewell's returns to Baltimore with her two children, but without her husband or her nanny. The nanny never came home Friday night. Reluctantly, Libby deferred to husband's advice to wait 48 hours before calling the police. By Sunday afternoon, he finally agreed to call. After the police left, Libby is poking around Sophie's room and Mike comes in and when he sees what she is doing, snaps and hits her. This was not the first time that Mike has hurt her and she decides to "get the hell out of there." So for now, a vacationing friend is letting Libby use her place, which is located in Bolton Hill.
Hitchcock mentions that he has a friend that is a private investigator and is good at finding missing people, meaning of course the surly Pete Munger whom he (and us) met in the last outing. Before he has a chance to even involve Munger, he gets a call from Libby that Sophie is dead. The police think she jumped from the bridge near the Naval Academy into the Severn River. Libby strongly doubts this. But then, they also report that she was pregnant. Another shock to Libby since this girl hardly ever went out and seemed to have no friends, especially a boyfriend. Now Hitchcock does get Munger involved.
Just to give a little taste of Hitchcock's narration, Hitchcock and Munger are interviewing some of the people who were directly or indirectly involved in Sophie's life. Here they are knocking on a Mrs. Pierce's door:
"The woman considered the two of us a few seconds longer. She must have determined that we weren't in fact vacuum-cleaner salesmen employing an elaborate ruse in order to get ourselves inside and toss black dirt down on her carpet. She opened the door and let us in. We were led to a sun porch. It was so chocked with a flower motif I half expected to see bees buzzing around the cushions."
The thing that I like best about this book/series is that despite all the horseplay, there is a lot of serious sleuthing going on. It is every bit as satisfying as your noir style mystery or any of the more serious detective novels. Although it's tempting to categorize this is as a cozy, specifially the type where the well meaning amateur annoys the police during an investigation, this series is evolving into much more than that with the addition of Pete Munger. All right, Hitchcock still annoys the police, or maybe it's better said that the police annoy him.
Part of the strength of the series is Hitchcock's ex-wife Julia, of whom he quickly explains for those new to the series, "Julia is my ex-wife. One silly year of marriage. Ill-conceived, awkwardly executed, ended by mutual consent. We're still ungodly close. Julia is the loveliest libidinous creature you'd ever hope to stumble across. Also an acclaimed painter. Also a nut." You'd think with this description that us female types would despise her. Not so. She is as fun as Hitchcock and because he goes along with all of her hijinks (like wearing harem pants and a peek-hole vest to a conservative religious party they happen to be crashing), she's all the more likable. She's really a goof and does things like call his answering machine to tell him a joke, but can't remember it, and just ends up laughing hysterically at the memory of the joke. This has got to be the healthiest ex-relationship in fiction.
Basically, this is a fun book, a fun series and these people feel like real friends -- so much so, that I wished while we were driving through Maryland during that huge snow storm this past February that we could have dropped into Baltimore to look up Hitch, Julia and the rest. I know I could find them in at least one of their favorite bars and I'm positive I'd recognize them.
- Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews
Read an excerpt from from Murder in the Hearse Degree at MostlyFiction.com(back to top)
"The Hearse Case Scenario"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark FEB 6, 2000)
"Apparently I was the first person Shrimp Martin called after Lucy Taylor shot him." I love a good first line and this one had me giggling. But then you have to know that Hitchcock Sewell, the narrator, is an undertaker.
Much to Detective John Krug's chagrin, Hitchcock is by default involved in another one of his murder cases. Hitchcock is the one that made the original 9-1-1 call; and, Sewell and Sons are about to hold a service for the suspect's grandmother. But he and Krug have gone through these rounds in the past, so for the most part Hitchcock tries to stay out of Krug's way. But, because Lucy looks like the most obvious suspect, he doesn't trust that Krug will look very hard into other possibilities. Hitchcock has known Lucy since childhood and is absolutely sure that she is innocent. Although Lucy may have shot the sleazy night club owner, Shrimp martin, they don't for a moment believe she was the one to visit his hospital room to finish him off. Although it does look awfully suspicious.
Hitchcock's first job is to find Lucy. His hunch is that Julia (ex-wife and best friend) has hid Lucy away some place until they can figure out what to do. But as time passes things get worse with the realization that Shrimp's younger brother is also missing. Meanwhile, Hitchcock's approach is to just talk to everyone who might know anything about the events leading up to Shrimp Martin's last days. And this takes him (and us) into all parts of Baltimore, to "the county" and up to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. There are also no shortage of personalities that he meets up with, including one short woman named Mary with a girl-next-door look contradicted by a vixen's charm; a man who uses his body as a paint brush, but whose career was cut short when he was convicted of murdering his wife; and an old friend that now lives with the Krishna. As anyone knows having read the earlier novels, Hitchcock likes to stop in bars and loves good music; the way he describes the Edgar Jonz Experience, you can practically hear the band through the pages. He also meets up with a private eye named Pete Munger and they more or less team up. Pete Munger is a cranky guy going through a severe mid-life crisis and makes a great foil to some of Hitchcock's best/worst one-liners. I'm hoping that Pete becomes a regular part of Hitchcock's community in future novels.
About Hitchcock's wit, maybe it's best to go along with Medical Examiner Morris Kiefaber when he calls him a "specimen of bad one-liners." It is true that Hitchcock hardly stops with the lines, and sometimes they really are corny. But most make you grin. And some take a minute to hit, like any good punchline. One of my favorites scenes: after Hitchock's date slams the door on him for showing up in his hearse (long story about date and car), he goes to the Belvedere for a few drinks. He finds himself in conversation with an "investment whiz kid" who tucks his card in Hitchcock's pocket and says, "Call me when you're ready." Hitchcock slips one of his own cards in the kid's pocket and says, "Ditto."
Despite all of this monkeying around, the "whodunit" is very effective. First, there are many suspects; second, a bag of money (always follow the money, as Munger advises); and third, there is a lack of motive no matter how Hitchcock puts the pieces together. For a while I believed that the suspect was obvious and that Hitchcock was just blind. (Of course, this is what is meant to happen!) Finally, when it all comes together, well it makes sense, and no, I didn't guess it right at all. Like not even close.
Once again, Hitchcock moves through Baltimore with ease treating us to the pleasures of being part of his community. This is the kind of book that can put you in a good mood; for even his relationship with his dog, Alcatraz, feels right. If you like humor mixed in with your amateur sleuthing and unusual occupations, then I highly recommend this book and this series.
- Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews
Read an excerpt from The Hearse Case Scenario at MostlyFiction.com(back to top)
"Hearse of a Different Color"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark FEB 04, 2001)
"The wake was a bust. Everybody was crowded into the front hall, leaving the dead doctor to his own devices. One of his colleagues was kneeling in front of the couch, gingerly lifting the bloodstained front of the dress and peering inside. He meant well, but it was a perverse sight."
A dead waitress is dumped on the steps of Baltimore's Sewell and Sons funeral home in the middle of an unscheduled pre-Christmas blizzard and a wake for one of John Hopkins prestigious heart surgeons. On the surface, it isn't so odd for dead bodies to be delivered to funeral homes, but they don't normally arrive unannounced nor do they have fresh bullet wounds. So who is she and why this funeral home?
Hitchcock Sewell is a natural at amateur sleuthing. It helps that he's a lifelong resident of Baltimore and that he's in a business where he gets to know a lot of people and doesn't have to work a normal schedule. Hitch has his own curiosity about "Helen" the dead waitress. So it doesn't take much when his girlfriend, Bonnie Nash, requests that he help her "solve" this murder mystery. Following in her father's footsteps, Bonnie is the local weather girl - only she's lousy at it, calls the weather wrong consistently and is the laughing stock of Baltimore. She wants to make a break from the weather girl gig to do hard news if only Hitchcock can help her.
But even without Bonnie's nudge, Hitch would probably be looking for the killer. The day the dead girl's estranged sister comes to view the body, he learns that Helen was the mother of a three year old son, who will now be raised by this woman, Vickie Wagonner. Too close to Hitchcock's own childhood experience, he has an underlying motivation to find the answer for the sake of the sister and the orphaned son.
Hitch and Bonnie start looking for answers at a seedy airport lounge where Helen worked. But the real clues get filled in when Bonnie is nowhere around. It turns out that Hitch's ex-wife, Julia, knows a bit about this family, like that a "Victoria Wagner" was a nude model and porn star. Meanwhile, a prominent couple is murdered in their home and Detective John Kruk is pulled away from Helen Waggoner's case. Hitch continues to dabble at the threads of information trying to sort out what's what between the sisters, the boy's drugged-up father, an unknown "new man" in Helen's life, the lousy lounge band, Helen's "best" friend, and again, why she was dumped at his funeral home. Before this case is solved, Hitch has to change his notion about "whodunit" several times and still comes up with a surprise conclusion.
Hitchcock Sewell will bust you out of any preconceived notions about undertakers. Hitch has an unusually mischievous sense of humor, at least not the kind one would expect of a mortician. He's also uncommonly good looking with his 6'3" stature and is seemingly irresistible to Baltimore's most beautiful woman. The author has Hitch play with these contradictions throughout the novel. For example, Hitch introduces himself by a nickname of "Frosty" before interviewing a stripper called "Misty." As he's about to leave he impulsively hands her his business card in case she thinks of anything else.
"What's this mean? Are you an undertaker? You bury people?" She looked up at me with a perplexed expression. Unconsciously, she drew her robe tighter. "You shouldn't tell girls what you do for a living. That's just a piece of advice." She looked back down at the card, then back at me. "God, and your so good looking too. What a shame."
His Aunt Billie offers no less waggish view of the funeral business. When a dead body comes in the two of them play cribbage to determine who's going to embalm the body and take care of the arrangements.
Besides the humor, the characters, and the sleuthing, I like this novel because it really takes you to Baltimore, especially the Fells Point area. I had just read Anne Tyler's Patchwork Planet which takes place in Baltimore but is not about Baltimore. Tim Cockey's approach is a true walk around town, he meets Bonnie at Alonso's, dines with Julia at The Admiral's Cup where she brings in margaritas from the Admiral Fell Inn across the street. Hitch is all the time sharing bits of trivia of his beloved Charm City, like the fact that they snatched the Baltimore Ravens from Cleveland. (I'll admit I relished sharing this piece of information during last Sunday's Superbowl game.) Key to any good sleuth series is how likable and consistent characters are, as much as how grounded they are in their location. Tim Cockey scores high on both of these accounts. You really get the sense of a small town within the big town of Baltimore.
Hearse of a Different Color had me laughing out loud from page one. I highly recommend this new series for every sleuth fan. I want to meet up and have drinks with Hitchcock Sewell and his community of friends again and again.
- Amazon reader rating: from 16 reviews
Read an excerpt from Hearse of a Different Color at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Hearse You Came In On (2000)
- Hearse of a Different Color (2001)
- The Hearse Case Scenerio (2002)
- Murder in the Hearse Degree (2003)
- Backstabber (2004)
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About the Author:
Tim Cockey has served as a story analyst for such companies as American Playhouse, ABC-TV and Hallmark Entertainment. He also promoted professional opera productions, helped run a farmer's market and edited books about how to get other people to give you money. He grew up in Baltimore and now lives in New York City.