The Jane Lawless Series: Vital Lies by Ellen Hart

Published in 1993, Vital Lies is the return of Ellen Hart’s restaurateur and sleuth Jane Lawless, featuring a remote island setting, wolves (real and imaginary), an escalating pattern of pranks and sabotage, and a motley cast of suspects. Come for the Murder, She Wrote vibes, and stay for the thoughtful insights into homophobia and coexistence.

Jane’s old friend Leigh has opened up the inn of her dreams – or it would be a dream, if someone wasn’t intent on sabotaging it. There’s been broken glass in the parking lot, gruesome surprises in the guest rooms, and the kitchen has even been ransacked. Leigh is starting to show the strain, just as Jane and Cordelia arrive for a stay. Jane suspects these attacks are deeply serious, a feeling confirmed by a death in the hotel. Now it’s up to Jane to figure out the who, how, and why before anyone else dies. It’s not going to be easy, either, considering the hotel’s current head count includes Leigh’s money-strapped partner Stephen, her quirky aunts, one of whom may have a secret romance brewing, Leigh’s troubled cousin Ruthie, a father and son with skeletons in the closet and a desire to own the inn themselves, a Wiccan practitioner, and her lover Tess, a woman definitely keeping something back — not to mention the new waiter, the cook with his young son always underfoot, and the grouchy handyman. Oh, and her melodramatic best friend Cordelia, stricken with an apparently dreadful cold. Jane’s got her work cut out for her on multiple fronts, as a determined and methodical killer gets ever closer…

I’m biased in this case because Murder, She Wrote is one of my comfort TV shows, but I found this very enjoyable. It’s very plot-focused, so we don’t see a lot of Jane’s internal life (though we do get some, including more information about her late partner Christine) and it’s more like a classic Golden Era whodunit or a stage play murder mystery. At the same time, there’s also honest portrayals of life as an LGBTQ person including parental rejection AND, more importantly, queer joy. After the rampant homophobia Jane runs up against in Hallowed Murder, it’s refreshing in this case to see Jane, Cordelia, and Winifred and Tess just living their lives as lesbians unapologetically and mostly unchallenged. I’m especially glad to be reading this series because it reminds me that LGBTQ authors have always existed and have been working for positive representation for a long time.

For me it falls in the cozy genre (which I don’t like quite as much), but book 2 in the Jane Lawless series still gets my thumbs-up, and you may like it too if you’re a fan of: Murder She Wrote, country house murder mysteries, vintage LGBTQ reads, or determined amateur sleuths unearthing long-buried secrets.

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