Review of Death by Surprise. Carolyn Hart. Seventh Street Books, Amherst, NY. November 5, 2013. 200 pages. Paperback ISBN: 978-1-61614-869-0, $13.95; e-book ISBN: 978-1-61614-1-870-6, $9.99.
When Death by Surprise was first published in 1983, women private investigator novels were a rare breed. Sue Grafton published her first Kinsey Milhone novel in 1982, and Sara Paretsky began her V.I. Warshawski series also in 1982. In her introduction to this re-issue Hart says “Death by Surprise is as near that private eye genre as I have ever come. K.C. Carlisle, the protagonist, is a young woman lawyer who has good reason never to quite trust anyone.” At the same time young women were becoming lawyers to reckon with.
Death by Surprise moves fast, like the private eye books Carolyn read as a teenager: Erle Stanley Gardner, John Creasey, Donald Hamilton, and Jack Iams.
K.C. comes from a wealthy family. The only one of the Carlisle clan she’s close to is her mother’s long-time servant, Amanda. Francine Boutelle comes to town and begins hunting scandal among members of K.C.’s family. She has her claws into K.C. as well.
They all have something to hide, but Boutelle will publish the dirt she has dug up unless each member brings her $50,000.
On the evening they are showing up by appointment at Boutelle’s apartment with the money, their blackmailer is strangled with a scarf belonging to Kenneth Carlisle, K.C.’s lawyer cousin and candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. K.C. is dating his opponent, Greg Garrison.
K.C. arrives herself at Boutelle’s apartment to find her dead body. She had planted a small recorder in the room, hoping to catch Boutelle in the process of blackmailing her. As K.C. is retrieving the recorder, the local newspaper’s editor, Harry Nichols, turns up, too, also by appointment. Harry and his whole family have hated the Carlisles for several generations. He calls the police, Harry and K.C. are interviewed, and the police find the recorder. Cousin Kenneth is arrested. K.C. doesn’t like Kenneth much or agree with his politics, but she doesn’t think he’s the killer, so she sets out to find out who that is.
I congratulate Seventh Street for bringing out these early Carolyn Hart books. At the Malice Domestic Convention 25 (May 2013), in her interview related to winning the Amelia Award, Hart said her early books seemed to disappear into a black hole until, at an early Malice, in 1988, she won a best novel Agatha award for her second Death on Demand novel, Design for Murder.
If you’ve never read these early books, you’re in for a treat. Check out my blog reviews on Escape from Paris, originally published in 1982 [pmz blog June 8, 2013]; Skulduggery, originally published in 1984 [pmz blog July 28, 2013]; Brave Hearts, 1987 [pmz blog Aug. 11, 2013]. I also reviewed her 2003 novel Letter from Home [pmz blog May 25, 2013].
Carolyn Hart–bio from website.
Carolyn Hart is the author of 50 novels. Her 50th new novel - DEAD, WHITE AND BLUE, 23rd in the Death on Demand series – was published in May 2013.
Recent titles include DEATH COMES SILENTLY, 22nd in the Death on Demand series. In October 2013 she published GHOST GONE WILD, 4th in a series featuring the late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, an impetuous red-headed ghost who returns to earth to help someone in trouble.
LETTER FROM HOME, a stand alone novel set in Oklahoma, was published by Berkley in 2003. Gretchen Gilman is 13 in the summer of 1944 and working on the small town newspaper. Murder occurs on the street where she lives, changing her life forever. LETTER FROM HOME was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize by the Oklahoma Center for Poets and Writers at Oklahoma State University Tulsa. Letter from Home won the Agatha for Best Mystery Novel of 2003 and was a New York Times notable book.
Hart was one of ten mystery authors featured at the National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington D.C. in 2003 and again in 2007. In March 2004 she received the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. She has twice won the annual Oklahoma Book Award for best novel. In April 2004 she spoke at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. on mysteries in American culture. She received the Ridley Pearson Award at Murder in Grove, Boise, Idaho, in 2005 for significant contributions to the mystery field. She has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Malice Domestic and the Amelia Award in May 2013.
Hart is a native of Oklahoma City, a Phi Beta Kappa journalism graduate of the University of Oklahoma, and a former president of Sisters in Crime. She is also a member of Authors Guild, Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the International Crime Writers Association, the International Thrillers Association, and the American Crime Writers League. She taught professional writing in the University of Oklahoma School of Journalism 1982-85. She is the winner of three Agatha Awards for Best Novel, two Anthonys and two Macavitys.