Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

Published in August 2019, Twisted at the Root is Ellen Hart’s 26th novel in the Jane Lawless mystery series. Hart’s mastery of the mystery genre and the unique world of her characters is evident throughout the book. As a first-time reader of the series, I got the sense that there were dozens of Easter eggs planted for avid fans, which added an unmistakable energy to such scenes without being alienating as the book was easily read as a standalone.

In this 26th mystery, Jane Lawless, a Minneapolis-based private investigator, looks into the murder of Gideon Wise four years after the incident when evidence is uncovered that Gideon’s husband, Rashad has been wrongly convicted. There are a handful of suspects, each with their own set of motives that keep the reader guessing until the very end. On top of this, Jane’s brother, Peter, returns to town after going missing and has a few secrets of his own.

The book is a quick and cozy read, that balances dark themes of murder and guilt with good humor and interesting characters. The alternating third-person point-of-view between Jane and her suspects creates dramatic irony as readers learn details in the lives of Jane’s suspects before Jane does. There are moments when the suspects seem to intentionally keep information from readers within the close point of view, but the tradeoff is a deeper understanding of the lives of the suspects, their motivations, personal tragedies, and overall humanity. Jane’s personal life provides another emotional thread as she navigates her relationship with her girlfriend who has been diagnosed with cancer and as she tries to reconnect to her brother whose troubled past causes him to push her away.

Hart’s attention to character development must be one secret to her success as a writer. It was this quality of the writing that pulled me in, making me root (pun intended) for the innocence of characters and feel an ache and rush of vindication when the true culprit was revealed. This craft choice also helped to develop a theme around wickedness v. goodness, whether some people have a predisposition toward one or the other, in other words, whether or not their roots are actually twisted. Hart’s attention to detail is not limited to characterization. Like any good mystery writer, she lays out clues through the objects her character’s notice. Plus, her descriptions of the cities will strike a chord of satisfaction for Minnesotan readers.

If you love cozy mysteries or want to know if you love cozy mysteries, Twisted at the Root should be on your summer reading list.

— Kayla Lutes

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