Thursday, July 22, 2010

Grace Under Pressure: A Review

Julie Hyzy follows up on the success of her White House Chef Mysteries with another deliciously enticing entry in the amateur sleuth field. Grace Under Pressure is the first in Julie’s new Manor House series featuring Grace Wheaton, assistant curator of historical Marshfield Manor.

Marshfield Manor has long been a showpiece of the South Atlantic region with its gorgeous gardens, cozy tearoom, and endless exhibits of antiques. Lately, though, tourism has been down, and reclusive collector Bennett Marshfield’s lawyers feel an infusion of new blood is needed in the Manor’s administration in order to bring the place back to its former days of glory.

Enter Grace Wheaton, a native of the area who returned to Emberstowne to care for her ailing mother and now lives in her deceased parents’ home. Grace has family ties to the Manor and has always wanted to work there. As the newly hired assistant curator, she faces stubborn resistance from head curator Abe and his administrative assistant, Frances, while earning only grudging respect from Mr. Marshfield.

All that changes when Abe is murdered during a freak disturbance in the tearoom. Grace is temporarily thrust into the top position where she works closely with chief of security Terrence Carr to assure the safety of Bennett Marshfield, whom the police believe to be the killer’s actual intended victim.

Bennett’s testimony in T. Randall Taft’s Ponzi scheme trial may be behind the attempt on his life. A new motive comes to life, though, when Grace discovers Bennett has been receiving blackmail letters. Can Grace get beyond Bennett’s refusal to discuss the letters and somehow make sense of the tangled affairs at Marshfield Manor? It may seem an impossible task, but Grace is determined to save both her job and her employer, even if it means risking her own life.

In Emberstowne's Marshfield Manor, Hyzy has created an intriguing setting based on the work of foundations that save historical buildings and entire estates by turning them into self-supporting tourist attractions. The cast of characters who live or work in and around the Manor are equally distinctive; Hyzy has given them personalities that work well alone or in combination with their fellow characters. Grace is an especially appealing protagonist, determined but not pushy, curious but not nosy. Her quest to solve Abe’s murder is understandable given that her very livelihood depends on Bennett’s continued existence; no boss means no job, and no job means Grace could very well lose the home she grew up in.

The plot of Grace Under Pressure is somewhat convoluted, but honest clues exist, making the ending satisfyingly clear. The complications in Grace’s life as introduced by the author also work well as an introduction to the series. Fans of her previous series will both welcome and enjoy this latest effort by the very talented Julie Hyzy.


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