Hart is a modern master of the Agatha Christie-style traditional mystery, with plots that fit together perfectly and acute analysis of the psychology of people under the pressures that lead to crime.
Over dinner, Hart revealed that she is working on a brand new series — the fourth one the writer has created — so this is all the more reason to celebrate the recent arrival of “Dead by Midnight” (William Morrow), the 21st volume in her “Death on Demand” series.
The novels follow a young woman named Annie Darling who runs the mystery bookstore ”Death on Demand” on a resort island off the coast of South Carolina. In the course of the series, Annie fell for and married the very handsome, Max, who started an unlicensed private investigation service.
The novels balance the beauty of life on the island — and the happiness of Annie and Max — with murders that are as disturbing as anything you’ll find in a hard-boiled detective novel.
What keeps Hart out of the noir category is the way that good always triumphs over evil in her stories — or, perhaps more accurately, the way that order is restored after a frightening crime shatters the peace of Broward’s Rock.
A thematic undertone in all of the “Death on Demand” novels is the notion that happiness and goodness wouldn’t mean so much to us if we were not aware of how quickly those qualities can vanish.
Hart added a darker tone to the stories several novels back when Max became a suspect in a murder case — the Darlings’ relationship with the local police changed in ways that have subtly filtered through the recent novels.
That harrowing event also gave Annie and Max a highly personal understanding of what it is like to be suspected of a crime and how easily public opinion can shift against you (even in a small community where, theoretically, long time knowledge of the good character of a suspect might outweigh the assertions of law enforcement people).
“Dead by Midnight” appears to be the last “Death on Demand” story we’ll be getting for a while, so I am pleased to report that Hart has more than upheld the high standards of this series.
The plotting here is especially clever.
The opening pages seem to point toward a rather ruthless newcomer to the island as the victim-to-be — just about everyone around this woman except her hapless husband has a good reason to want her dead. The first of Hart’s many good surprises is the sudden death of a middle-aged woman who lost her job because of the newcomer. A perfect perp-in-the-making becomes a victim instead. Why?
The cops write the woman’s death off as a suicide, but Annie knows better and starts to look into the supposed self-poisoning.
What we get for the next 200 or so pages is another of Hart’s brilliantly plotted whodunits — with a host of good suspects and then the perfectly executed revelation of the actual perp.
One of the marvels of the Max and Annie books is that the beautifully constructed crime plots never seem mechanical as the pieces fall into place.
Also, the deaths are never presented casually as they are in some “cozy” mysteries — they are always a blight on the peace and beauty of the (fictional) island Hart has brought to vivid life in story after story.