cover image Merchant of Venus

Merchant of Venus

Ellen Hart. Minotaur Books, $24.95 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-312-26618-9

Minneapolis-based restaurateur-sleuth Jane Lawless is out of her element in this so-so mystery, the 10th in the series (after 1999's Hunting the Witch). Jane accompanies her best friend, Cordelia Thorn, to an isolated mansion on the Connecticut coast to attend the hastily arranged marriage of Cordelia's younger sister, Octavia, a Broadway actress, to 83-year-old Roland Lester, a reclusive millionaire movie director. Among the handful of friends and relatives in attendance is documentary filmmaker Ellie Saks, who is at work on a profile of the great director himself--one that threatens to reveal Hollywood secrets of yesteryear. When Roland collapses during the ceremony and dies shortly after of poisoning, suspicion falls on a number of the guests--not least Octavia. Jane's sympathetic nature invites the confidences of others, and her understanding of human nature makes her good at putting the pieces of a mystery together. But the book suffers from a lack of a clear narrative focus, and the characters are clich d--none, except for the flamboyant Cordelia, quite comes alive. Uninterrupted stretches of dialogue and online research substitute for character development and investigation. What sets this book apart is the candor with which key characters deal with homosexuality and face the ugly ways they've behaved under the pressure of McCarthyism and the strict moral codes of the past. (Mar. 5)