Friday, September 20, 2019

Review: The Man Who Couldn't Miss by David Handler

Two years ago I read The Girl with the Kaleidoscope Eyes, the continuation, two decades after he stopped writing the series, of David Handler's Stewart Hoag Mysteries. And despite not being much of a mystery reader, I thoroughly enjoyed the witty and fun amateur detective mystery. So it's no surprise that I happily added the second novel in this series reboot (actually tenth if you count the books from 20 years ago) to my stacks. Having finally gotten around to reading it, I found that it was a welcome re-immersion in the life of Hoagy and his faithful basset hound Lulu.

It's 1993 and Hoagy is living in his ex-wife, famous actress Merilee Nash's guest cottage out in Connecticut. He's working feverishly on his second novel and feeling really confident about what he's producing. Meanwhile Merilee is working hard on a production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," which she is directing as a special, one night fundraising event to save Sherbourne Playhouse, a summer playhouse where many famous actors, including Merilee, made their stage debuts. Acting in the play with her are three of her very famous, Oscar winning Yale School of Drama classmates and one young, unknown but talented actress. When another former classmate, R J Romero, the one who everyone thought was the most talented, the most likely to make it and make it big, reappears, it is clear that the grudges and animosity from that time in all their lives has never completely disappeared. In fact, R J, now a criminal and drug addict, is blackmailing Merilee for something scandalous that could derail her career forever. Hoagy is determined to protect Merilee, because although she is his ex-wife, he still loves her, and so he gets a little more involved in the upcoming production than he normally would. That means he's right on site when after the successful first act of the play, performed in front of an audience of who's who in Hollywood and Broadway, one of the leads is found murdered in his dressing room. Hoagy, Lulu, and the police have to uncover the murderer in what is almost a locked door mystery, backstage and below stairs in the dilapidated, storm flooded playhouse.

When Handler wrote the first books in the series, it was the 90s so they were set in present day. Now they are set twenty years in the past but Handler has done a fantastic job of still grounding the book in that time period through references, name dropping (especially the actors expected at the fundraiser), and the technology used. Hoagy is a likable character and he narrates the novel. In order to keep the reader in suspense until the very end, he will intentionally leave out information, answers to questions he's asked or even the question itself, in order to signal to the reader that he is on the right track, even if we readers aren't yet. Lulu is an adorable sidekick who is only anthropomorphized to the extent that other dog owners understand but her sniffing investigations do help Hoagy in his conclusions. The wit and humor threads through the story and the visuals of Hoagy's attire are a complete delight. The ending is a surprise but an entirely believable one. As a bonus, in this novel, the whydunit relies on a situation that is quintessentially 90s. I liked the previous installment a little bit better than this one but I am still looking forward to the next novel because I enjoy my time with Hoagy, Merilee, and Lulu. If you're looking for a fun and quick whodunit read, you should definitely take a look at this one.

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