Engaging haunted house mystery by E.J. Copperman set on the Jersey Shore
Night of the Living Deed
Berkley Prime Crime, $7.99
Under his real name, Jeff Cohen, E.J, Copperman has written two other mystery series — one about a detective dad who has a child with Asperger's, and one about a man who owns a movie theater that only shows comedies. In this new identity, Cohen/Copperman seems to have found a smooth groove that seems to fit his particular skill set.
His skill set is a very highly developed one. While there are many, many cozy mysteries released every month (many of them from Berkley, Copperman's publisher) not all of them have the special sparkle that Copperman possesses in spades. Nor his gift with characterization.
This book is definitely gimmicky — the main character, a single mom named Alison Kerby, has bought an old Victorian House on the Jersey Shore with an eye toward turning it into a guest house. She's freshly divorced and has moved back to her hometown with her 9-year-old daughter, Melissa.
The gimmick is that the guesthouse isn't exactly unoccupied — it's inhabited by two ghosts, Maxie and Paul, who want Alison to find out who might have murdered them. The whole thing has the charm of the old "Topper" movies (which main character Alison claims not to have seen). In the spirit of "Topper," these are not scary ghosts, though Maxie can be on the destructive side when she wants to make a point.
Alison's daughter, Melissa, behaves like a very real child — she's smart and nice to her mom but she also can be bratty and ignore her in favor of hanging out with friends. One of Copperman's gifts through all of his series is writing children and teenagers really, really well, and it's not actually a common gift. Kids in books are often so precocious they're unbelievable, throwing the narrative off in some cases. That never happens with this talented writer.
While Alison is working hard to restore her house, she's getting often unwanted decorating advice from Maxie (who had been fixing it up herself) and at the same time Paul is giving her instructions on how to manage a murder investigation. She talks to people he thinks she should talk to, and asks them questions he wants her to ask.
As the mystery deepens, with a dead body about midway through the proceedings (not counting Maxie and Paul, of course) it becomes clear that someone is looking for something in Alison's house. She just isn't sure what it is, and when she does figure out what it is, she has no idea how to find it.
While the story telling rhythm here is gentle and pleasant, what's really special about this book are the wry observations made about just about everybody and everything, not to mention the fully developed characters that inhabit the story. I'd follow them almost anywhere. This is a completely charming first in a series novel.
There are now three in this series, An Uninvited Ghost (2011) and the newest, Old Haunts (2012).