You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 : 10:49 a.m.

Ellen Hart, the best writer you've never heard of, turns out a graceful, traditional mystery

By Robin Agnew

The Lost Women of Lost Lake
Ellen Hart

Minotaur, $25.99

Ellen Hart is the best writer you’ve never heard of. This is her 26th book, the 18th in her fine Jane Lawless series.

Jane is a Minneapolis restaurant owner who solves murders in her spare time — thus, she’s the very definition of amateur detective. She’s gay, and since the death of her partner Christine, she’s drifted from relationship to relationship. Jane is also the calm center of the storm in every novel; while everyone around her reacts to events, Jane deducts and analyzes.

Hart is also one of the best contemporary practitioners of the traditional mystery — if you’re a fan of Agatha Christie, you’re probably going to enjoy Ellen Hart, with her crisp plotting, no nonsense pacing and vivid characters. Several of her novels are among my favorite contemporary mysteries — The Iron Girl and An Intimate Ghost being particular favorites. This latest novel is a worthy addition to a solid series.

Hart often structures her stories using traumatic past events that are shaping the present. In this novel, the past of two women in the Minnesota resort town of Lost Lake come to light, and because one of the women, Tessa, is a friend of Jane and the flamboyant Cordelia Thorne (Jane’s sidekick, though if Cordelia were actually real I don’t think she’d care for that term), the two women step in to help when Tessa sprains her foot. The sprain, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg.

It becomes clear that Tessa and another woman in town were responsible for a death, and there’s a stranger in town asking uncomfortable questions. When a few deaths follow the stranger’s arrival, there’s a perfect snarl of tangled relationships, old tensions and kinship that make Jane’s look at the crimes a difficult task.

One of the threads involves the nephew of Tessa and her partner, Jill, who has run away from home and come to Lost Lake to live with his aunts. One involves the nephew’s former girlfriend who seems to be involved with his thuggish former best friend, and of course the main thread involves the rearing up of Tessa’s past as it threatens to engulf everything in its path.

As always, Jane’s deductive skills are superior as she untangles the web of circumstance and mysterious past events that lead to a solution. What makes Hart a contemporary mystery writer is the fact that her characters are fully fleshed out, and the psychological underpinnings are complex and realistic. She may tell a story with Christie’s bravura, but she also brings a contemporary storyteller’s toolbox to the table.

There’s nothing not to like in these novels. Dig in.

Robin Agnew is the co-owner of Aunt Agatha's Mystery Bookshop in Ann Arbor.



Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 6:45 p.m.

I just finished "Lost Women of Lost Lake", and have again been impressed by Ellen Hart's mastery of the mystery. There is also an Ann Arbor connection to this book: In February, 2010 Common Language Bookstore held our first major fundraiser, titled "The Last Bookstore Standing". One of the silent auction items was a generous donation by Ellen of a character name in an upcoming mystery in the Jane Lawless series. The item was won by community activist and City Council member Sabra Briere. Sabra's character ending up becoming an integral part of the story. To celebrate, Sabra is joining us at Common Language Bookstore this Thursday, October 27th at 7:00 p.m. for a Reading and Reception. If you've never read Ellen Hart, come and experience a bit of "Lost Women of Lost Lake" at 325 Braun Court, across from the \aut\ BAR.