Welcome to an outstanding new cozy mystery series.
First, a note: Some people will be attracted to Deb Richardson-Moore’s mystery novels because they’re published by Lion Fiction, the adult fiction branch of Lion Hudson, a British publisher of Christian books.
Others might shy away from them for the same reason, fearing that a “Christian” mystery will be too heavy on inspiration, evangelism or moralizing at the expense of writing, plotting and characterization.
Here’s my advice. Having read two of the three Branigan Powers mysteries Richardson-Moore has out thus far, forget the implied label and read these books because they are good — entertaining, well written and, yes, thought provoking, but not in any overt or preachy way.
Branigan Powers is a reporter for the daily newspaper in the fictional town of Grambling in northeast Georgia. She worked for a larger paper up north for a while but returned to her hometown.
Newspaper assignments, as well as her many connections in this area where she grew up and still has family and friends, give rise to the mysteries that propel the novels.
These are “cozy” mysteries, long on character and relationships and short on violence. The murder usually happens offstage, and Branigan is one of several people trying to figure out the who, what, when, why and how.
Grambling is sufficiently small that the cozy approach works well, as Branigan knows or at least knows about most of the people involved. One thing that makes her novels distinctive is that because of her friendship with Liam Delaney, a former reporter, Branigan knows not only the town’s leaders and “good” families, but also its homeless people.
Now a reverend, Liam runs a homeless ministry and shelter in a former big box store in the inner city. He helps Branigan see the homeless people as individuals, and to appreciate the reality that because to most people, they are invisible, they sometimes see and hear things that other people miss.
In fact, Malachi, a homeless man who we gradually learn is a veteran of the Iraq War, is quite a sleuth himself.
In “Death of a Jester,” the third book, Grambling is the latest city to have a rash of clown sightings, and the clown seems to have an unhealthy interest in children. After a clown snatches a young homeless boy, Branigan is trying to work the story and help find the child. Malachi is also trying to help, even as he is haunted by the memory of a boy in Iraq. Then a murder happens, a murder that’s a little too close to Branigan’s home for comfort, and one that’s involved with the kidnapping.
We first get to know Malachi in the series’ first book “The Cantaloupe Thief,” when Branigan is assigned to write a story about the 10th anniversary of the city’s only unsolved murder — a prominent, wealthy widow. There were rumors that a homeless person might have been involved, and Branigan turns to Liam and, through him, to Malachi, for insights.
Asking new questions stirs up old secrets, and homeless people who have made some careless remarks begin dying in suspicious circumstances.
Many a newspaper reporter aspires to write a novel someday; few actually get around to doing so. Deb Richardson-Moore, like her character, Liam, left the newspaper world, earned a Master of Divinity degree and became the pastor of a mission church that helps the homeless. A graduate of Wake Forest University, she put in 27 years as a reporter for The Greenville News in South Carolina before starting her second career.
She puts all that experience and her investigative and writing skills to excellent use in her mystery series. She writes realistically about today’s newspaper business and the challenges faced by ever-shrinking staffs. Her characters — townspeople, friends, family and also the homeless — are fully developed. Dialogue is convincing.
Richardson-Moore doesn’t romanticize or make excuses for the homeless people in her stories, but rather depicts realistic struggles with addiction, mental and emotional illness, as well as some decidedly poor choices.
The mysteries are well plotted, with the solution not too obvious, yet convincing.
Her publisher describes itself as producing “quality literature… true to the Christian faith” and “accessible books that reflect a Christian worldview to a general audience.’ That’s accurate.
Richardson-Moore’s books are about real, believable people. Her characters have full lives. Branigan doesn’t mind a glass or two of wine, and as the series progresses, she finds herself in an increasingly serious relationship with a certain police detective. The “worldview” is not about judging others or following man-made rules, but about accepting people — even the homeless — for who they are, trying to help them if possible and having compassion when they fall short.
Richardson-Moore’s novels are never preachy or pedantic, and they avoid the pitfall of too much exposition. She simply writes a good story and lets readers draw their own conclusions.
The second book in the series is “The Cover Story.” I haven’t read that one, and it’s not necessary to do so to enjoy the others. But I’ll be looking for it while I wait for No. 4 in the Branigan Powers saga to arrive.