Death of a Pooh-Bah
by Karen Sturges
(Bantam, $5.99, V) ISBN 0-553-58131-7
Phoebe Mullins has long believed that she had no surviving family left in this world, when she receives an invitation for a long lost aunt to visit Northampton, Massachusetts. It seems her Aunt Portia had long ago been ostracized by her family and taken to living on the Continent, only to return to her childhood home after the death of husband #3. Phoebe, a widow, decides that a little vacation to get acquainted with her mother’s sister may do her some good.

Once in Northampton, she quickly becomes involved in a local production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado. Only thinking of having some fun, she soon finds herself embroiled in backstage politics, all revolving around the odious man who’s playing Pooh-Bah, Dr. E. Foster Ballard. Ballard is a pompous man taken to throwing his weight around and alienating several members of The Mikado. However, it still comes as a bit of shock when Phoebe discovers Ballard with a knife in his back after an incredibly successful opening night.

Who would want to murder Dr. Ballard? Sure the man was a swine, but he also had his legions of devoted followers. But Phoebe soon discovers that several members of The Mikado had compelling reasons for despising the man, and plenty of motives to want him dead. Was it a scorned ex-wife? A young woman who was tired of Ballard’s “attention?” Or a member of a feminist organization who was protesting the production? But it’s when Phoebe learns that her own aunt could be involved that her deductive skills kick into overdrive. What was her aunt’s connection to the late Dr. Ballard, and was it reason enough for her to kill him?

Sturges has crafted herself a complex and engaging amateur sleuth. Often in cozies, the characters display “too good to be true” tendencies that has this reader questioning “Is anyone’s life this perfect?” Not the case with Phoebe, who finds herself unsure and approaching the big 5-0. While she loved her dead husband dearly, she soon realizes that through all their years of marriage, she had been catering to his lifestyle while not living a life of her own. She is unsure of what direction to take, or even how she will make a living once the dust settles. Through the course of Death of a Pooh-Bah, she finds herself faced with new revelations and decisions that have to be made.

Sturges also has a winning writing style, which made this second entry of the series a delightful read. Many readers will find Phoebe a likable character and promising sleuth, who has a knack for getting suspects to unload their troubles.

And what a list of suspects! There are several to choose from and their motives are original and quite serious. All of them have compelling reasons for hating the victim, and I thought that Sturges’ development of these motives was quite original and well done.

While a nice read, there were a couple minor quibbles I had with this tale. For one thing, Sturges doesn’t offer any background to The Mikado, which may annoy ignorant readers. I am completely naïve on Gilbert & Sullivan, and I found myself curious as to the actual story behind the play. This lack of knowledge didn’t detract from the story in any way, but did slightly annoy me during the beginning portion of the book.

There is also a slight problem with Aunt Portia’s dialogue. I got the impression that Sturges was trying to give her some sort of accent, but I just couldn’t figure out what it was. The woman was living most recently in India, but I found her voice waffling between Irish and country bumpkin. Leaving out abbreviated words and apostrophes would have gone a long way to cut down on confusion.

Aside from those minor complaints, I found Death of a Pooh-Bah an enjoyable read. Theater buffs will definitely want to take a look, and fans of amateur sleuths will find much to like in Phoebe Mullins. I know I had a good time, and I look forward to more adventures from Sturges’ delightful sleuth.

--Wendy Crutcher

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