cover image Busy Bodies

Busy Bodies

Joan Hess. Dutton Books, $19.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-525-93910-8

The usually quite conventional life of Farberville bookstore owner Claire Malloy embraces enough zany characters and situations in her 10th adventure (following Tickled to Death) to put readers in mind of Sheriff Arly Hanks's Maggody, the domain of Hess's other mystery series. Painter Zeno Gorgias, who has recently moved to the small Arkansas town's historic neighborhood, is staging performance pieces, starring a nearly naked young woman with a rubber snake, on his front lawn. Not only are Claire's hyperbolic teenage daughter and her friend involved, but Claire's policeman lover has his hands full with crowd control. Zeno's estranged wife arrives and threatens to have him institutionalized for incompetence; she is found murdered, her body recovered from charred ashes of Zeno's house after it--and half a million dollars' worth of his paintings--are burned. Suspects include the painter, his young, nubile ``star,'' a couple from a local Bible college and a neighbor trying to sell his house. Another murder complicates Claire's efforts to understand motives as, in true small-town fashion, she pokes into everyone's business and manages, through some adroit footwork, to bring a murderer to his knees. Nearing her 40th birthday in this neatly plotted tale, Claire seems slightly more sardonic than in the past, but no less energetic. (June)