1182 Death on Elephant Mountain
Lucky Jack Road: A Stella Mosconi Mystery
by J.G. Toews
Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 2020
$19.99 / 9781771615082
Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy
This, the second in the Stella Mosconi Mystery series, invites delving into mystery subgenres. Lucky Jack Road has the hallmarks of a cozy mystery: the amateur detective, typically female, practises her sleuthing in a small town replete with a cast of diverse, quirky characters, and, while suspense and possible crimes drive the plot, morbid and graphic elements play second fiddle to detecting. Yet, there is a seediness, an undercurrent of unease, to the atmosphere that convinces me to place Lucky Jack Road at the edge of coziness. Let’s call it “an edgy cozy.”
Late 30-something heroine Stella is propelled by her bike and a penchant for crime solving that she is able to indulge as a reporter for the Nelson paper. Mother of two young boys and wife to Joe, a high school science teacher and ardent Search and Rescue volunteer, she borders on the workaholic — particularly when it comes to detecting. The couple’s respective passions for their hobbies lead them to enthusiasms of another kind: contemporary marriages are busy, complex, and fraught with temptations (particularly when each partner spends considerable spare time with attractive hobby buddies). This marriage is on thin ice.
Like its predecessor, Give Out Creek, Lucky Jack Road is very much place-based: the crimes and misdemeanours seem intrinsic to the landscape, and Stella’s Achilles heel, a fear of water, is frequently tested in the lakeside cabin the family inhabits and in her sleuthing. This is present-day Nelson in all its bike-riding, lake-lapping, tree-hugging, gossipy splendour. Toews’ website, while it has a disclaimer – that the setting is “a fictionalized version of Nelson, British Columbia” – also has a tab, “Stella’s World,” comprised of photographs of the town that add veracity to her imagined view of the place she inhabits. For this reader, much of the appeal of both books comes from identification with the detailed setting.
Toews professes to a fascination with forensics consistent with her health sciences training; she puts it to effective use in the depiction of the central mystery, while adhering to the cozy convention of minimizing gore. Jack Ballard, a popular competitive cyclist and businessman from an affluent local family, falls off a cliff — a popular lookout site — on Elephant Mountain the day after his 40th birthday party. The fall would not have been precipitous and would have been broken by vegetation, so his death is curious. By the time Joe and the rest of the SAR team get to the site, rain has obliterated evidence beyond what the corpse can provide. Although inexperienced at climbing and hung over after a night of heavy partying, Jack had seemed fit. The coroner detected no obvious head injury, little external bleeding, a high blood-alcohol level, and a body rife with bruises, predating the fall, consistent with, among other possibilities, rough sex.
The coroner’s verdict, a burst aortic aneurysm, doesn’t wrap things up for Stella and her partner (in crime solving and possibly more) Ben McKean, of the Nelson Police Department. Jack’s down-on-her luck drug-addled school sweetheart, his fiancé, Danielle, and her paramour (Jack’s best friend) a hoodied figure reported at the site, and the teenaged swimmer who instructs the Mosconi children and first reported the death, are among the suspects. As Stella and Ben investigate separately and together, they straddle a fine line in terms of the ethics and confidentiality of police work, and, although their mutual admiration doesn’t veer into infidelity, public perception of their relationship does, and that puts Stella’s job at risk. Moreover, temptation remains, particularly after Ben’s marriage crumbles.
There are other edges in Stella’s life. She herself is the product of a shattered marriage and must now confront the father who abandoned her. As well, as a teenager, she narrowly escaped the sexual violence of Jack Ballard, and is thus aware of a side of him different than the public face townspeople like to remember.
Despite her misgivings about Jack’s character, Stella relentlessly pursues answers; to that end, her befriending of two characters in particular, Jack’s stepmother, Pamela, and the childhood sweetheart, Angela, affords the reader views into polar opposites of the social spectrum. Pamela is genteel, cultured, civil, and trusting. She becomes the unintended victim of a prank that has dire, but ultimately not tragic, consequences. Angela, a school custodian whose best days are far behind her, is obsessed with the romance she and Jack once had and convinced Danielle is the villain of the piece. A misfit who succumbs to the temptation to doctor her alcohol with fentanyl, Angela becomes a sacrifice. The sociological slant of the novel is strong.
Characterization is as important as setting and sleuthing in a cozy mystery, and even the secondary characters are more deeply drawn in Lucky Jack Road than in its predecessor. Although this reader finds Ben McKean still somewhat surface, it was satisfying to get more insight into Joe Mosconi’s flaws. Perhaps it is easier to create credible characters that have more flaws than attributes, or perhaps the former fascinate more than the latter. In any case, Toews is developing a facility with edgy characters — those who bend the rules and skirt the law. To wit, Kieran Corcoran, a suspect in Give Out Creek, is further fleshed out in the second book. A teenaged stoner and pick-up artist from a broken home and with a chequered past, Kieran continues to occupy a grey area early in book two, but becomes less villainous as his redeeming qualities, including an ability to spot and be loyal to good people, come to the fore. Ex-con Max Huber and his unlikely companion Colette play tertiary roles in Lucky Jack Road and appear to have settled from their scheming ways; the pair are likely suspects for larger roles in subsequent books in the series.
She is not Lane Winslow or Jane Marple; Stella Mosconi is a credible sleuthhound in her own right. Lucky Jack Road, replete with glances at addiction, infidelity, and social injustice, is just edgy enough to unsettle readers and, with its soft ending and linear, undemanding structure, just cozy enough to offer us respite from the concerns of pandemics, climate change, and wildfires perilously close to our domiciles.
Ginny Ratsoy, Professor Emerita at Thompson Rivers University, writes, ambles, and volunteer teaches in Kamloops. She is honoured to be living and writing in the unceded territory of the Secwépemc people. Editor’s note: Ginny Ratsoy’s recent reviews include books by Iona Whishaw, Wayne Grady, Angie Abdou, Josephine Boxwell, Caroline Adderson, Melanie Jackson, Estella Kuchta, Madeline Sonik, and Mary MacDonald.
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