The Cat Sitter's Pajamas, Blaize Clement
I've noticed that after I've spent some quality time in the Victorian era, as with The Clever Woman of the Family, I often have a reactional impulse to read something very much of my time, preferably with a spunky independent heroine who takes no guff from anyone - a modern-day Amelia Peabody. Dixie Hemingway, the main character in Blaize Clement's series of mysteries, is a perfect answer to that, and this book was a perfect summer read.
Dixie ("no relation to you-know-who") lives on Siesta Key, a barrier island off the Florida coast, on the Gulf of Mexico just west of Sarasota. Every time I read one of these books, I want to book an immediate flight to Sarasota:
I live here for the same reason so many famous people have second or third or maybe eighth homes here - because it's a paradise of riotous colors, balmy sea breezes, cool talcum sand beaches, and every songbird and seabird you can think of. Snowy egrets walk around in our parking lots, great blue herons stand vigil on people's lawns, and if we look up we see the silhouette of frigate birds flying above the clouds like ships without a home.
Dixie grew up on the Key, in a house on the beach that her grandparents built many years before. Her brother and his partner now live in the house, and she has an apartment over the carport. She moved back in with her family after her husband and small daughter were killed. In the aftermath, Dixie gave up her job as a sheriff's deputy. She now has her own business working as a pet-sitter, mostly for cats, dogs, and birds (she doesn't mind snakes but hates feeding them live mice). Through her work, Dixie sometimes finds herself in the middle of criminal cases that involve her clients. She often involves herself more deeply than her brother or the police think she should, if she feels someone needs her help, and she is willing to cross moral and ethical lines to provide that help.
In this book, the seventh in the series, Dixie's clients include Cupcake and Jancey Trillin, who have left their cats in her charge while they travel to Italy. Cupcake is a star athlete, a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whom Dixie met in the previous book (Cat Sitter Among the Pigeons). When she arrives one morning at their home in an exclusive gated community, she is met by a nearly-naked woman who announces that she is Cupcake's wife. Dixie steps outside to call the Trillins and then the police. When two officers arrive, they enter the house with her to find a woman dead in the living room, her throat slit. But it's not the woman Dixie met, who later finds her, asking for her help. Dixie feels compelled to help her, though at the same time she wants to protect Cupcake and Jancey from both accusations of complicity, and the storm of publicity that a dead woman in a star athlete's home will set off.
Like the other books in the series, this one has an intriguing mystery for Dixie to unravel. I always enjoy the characters, human and animal, who make up her extended family, and who often help her in her cases. I love the vivid sense of setting that Blaize Clement evokes, though in this book perhaps some of the description could have been pruned back a bit. On the other hand there is just enough description of Dixie's work and her animal clients, which as a cat-owner I think are presented pretty realistically. (After a stressful day at work, I often think that I will give it all up and become a pet-sitter.) I have to say though that I don't think Dixie or her creator have been well-served by her publisher, Minotaur Books. The last few covers have featured cutsie kittens whimsically posed, with punning titles like this one. Neither the covers nor the titles have anything to do with the stories, and to my mind they give a false impression of cosiness, as if Dixie were a Florida version of Miss Marple, with cats instead of knitting. These books are not noir, but they aren't G-rated either. In this one, there are frequent (though non-graphic) references to the sexual abuse that one character suffered as a child, and another character's head gets blown off.
I was sorry to learn that Blaize Clement died in 2011. I enjoyed following her blog and had wondered when she stopped posting to it. According to an obituary I read, she left the manuscripts for two more books in the series, as well as materials her son will use to write others. I don't usually read continuations, but I will keep an eye out for these.