In Rosemary Harris’s third mystery featuring gardening professional Paula Holliday, readers discover some real dirt and an illegal secret from one of the preppiest moms in town. The Dirty Business series combines humor, small-town personalities and gardening insights to delight fans of amateur sleuth puzzles.
Paula is trying to keep her gardening business and finances afloat during the fall, when many of her clients are scaling back due to their own money struggles. She is spending even more time than usual in her friend Babe’s Paradise Diner, redoing the landscaping outside. The diner is Paula’s shabby but friendly hangout, and it is threatening to go upscale with a new outdoor patio and a bevy of Main Street moms who now come in between taking their kids to lessons. One of them, Caroline, has been a friend and client of Paula’s for a few years. She wants to back Paula in a new business venture: buying a nursery and garden design center. But Caroline does like to drink, and Paula is becoming nervous at the amount of liquor they put away at “business meetings.” She is also wondering why Caroline does not seem to want to put her name on the papers.
The situation gets murkier when Caroline runs into a stranger at the Paradise. He says something to her, and she flees. A few days later, an anonymous tip to the police reveals that longtime escaped prisoner Monica from Michigan and Caroline are one and the same. Worse, everyone in town thinks Paula is the one who tipped off the police for a reward. Caroline’s husband knows she did not do that, and hires Paula to find out who did and why. He just wants his wife and the mother of his children back, no matter what she did in her teens that landed her in prison for drug trafficking.
Paula is persona non grata in town now, hurting her business even more. Then the Paradise is broken into, and she begins to realize that all these things are connected and decides to find out what happened that uncovered Caroline’s secret. The path leads her to interview several folks who have turned up at the diner lately, including two others who are suddenly interested in the old nursery --- the same one she and Caroline were going to buy.
Digging into Caroline’s/Monica’s high school past leads Paula into danger. Someone wants to stop her and get to the purported money that Caroline made off with all those years ago. Paula tries to work with the local police sergeant, who seems ready to take their easy flirtation to a new level.
Rosemary Harris continues to give Paula a great heart and voice with lots of humorous asides. Babe; Paula’s co-sleuth and friend, Lucy; and even Caroline and her family are fun, quirky characters who still seem like realistic people. A scene in a local motel where Paula tries to hide Caroline and her husband with Lucy is laugh-out-loud funny. At times the mystery suspects get confusing as Paula herself tries to untangle the lies, but readers will be rooting for her in this strong series.
Reviewed by Amy Alessio on December 29, 2010