A review of Lucky Stiff by Elizabeth Sims

READ June 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY — There is what you believe, and then there is the truth. For Lillian Byrd, a chance encounter with an old friend means that everything she thought she knew about her shattered childhood is about to be revealed as a lie. One summer day when she was 12 years old, her best friend, Duane, left for summer camp. Later that night, flames ripped through the Polka Dot, a bar owned and run by Lillian’s parents. Three bodies were found in the ashes: those of her mother, her father and Trix Hawley, a bartender and Lillian’s frequent babysitter. Or so she has always thought. But Duane’s story reveals something shocking. After summer camp, his father moved him to Florida, telling Duane that his mother had left, and for a short time Trix Hawley lived with them. Now Duane’s father has disappeared as well. Who was the third body in the ashes of the Polka Dot? Was the fire an accident or arson? Where is Trix now? And where are Duane’s mother and father? Lillian and Duane set out to find the truth about their parents, a truth that has been hidden well by members of both their families. The author of the best–selling mysteries “Holy Hell” and “Damn Straight” has crafted another nerve-tingling thriller rich with characterization, humor and humanity.

MY REVIEW —

Elizabeth Sims’ Lucky Stiff is a departure from the lighter tone of the first two novels in her Lillian Byrd series, Holy Hell and Damn Straight, which doesn’t necessarily make it a better or a worse book. That depends on the taste of the individual reader. One reader commented that Lillian appears to have lost most of her sense of humor. I’ll return to this topic in a bit, after getting a few basic thoughts out of the way.Lucky Stiff is, as anyone familiar with Sims’ work would expect, mechanically well-written, logically plotted, fast-paced – if you pay attention, even in the more laid-back scenes, things are constantly happening – with well-drawn, believable, if somewhat unusual characters. The mystery itself is more than enough to keep you reading, but various other plot threads make this a multi-leveled story, enriching the reading experience.The most interesting of these secondary plot lines is Lillian’s relationship with Blind Lonnie, a street musician in Detroit’s Greek Town. Down on her luck again, our heroine busks alongside the more experienced Lonnie, her mandolin to his guitar, and he becomes her mentor not just in musical improv, but in life’s lessons as well. Lillian learns you must truly “let go” to succeed at musical improvisation just as letting go of her past,by finding the truth about it, frees her to live more fully.

Lillian’s connections to the events of her past are her Uncle Guff and her childhood friend Duane. The latter deserts her in their quest to find out what happened to their respective parents and, forced to continue without him, she finds an inner strength she wasn’t aware of. Things come full circle when Lillian relates all she’s learned to Uncle Guff who is not only aware of most of what she’s unearthed but who reveals perhaps more than she ever wanted to know, giving her a secret she feels compelled to keep.

There’s also Lillian’s rekindled romance with Minerva Le Blanc, who is recovering from the assault in Holy Hell. The “romance” is mostly on Lillian’s part; Minerva seems more interested in sex and the possibility of a lucrative new book and she’s more amused by Lillian’s naiveté than in love with her. If their relationship continues in the next book, to quote Han (and Luke, Anakin, Obi-Wan, Leia and C-3PO) “I have a bad feeling about this.”

To return to the opening topic, Lillian’s (disappearing?) sense of humor, Lucky Stiff is, indeed, darker than the earlier books. Given the principal theme, the death of Lillian’s parents and the disappearance of Duane’s mother, how can it not be? Clearly, humor can coexist alongside murder – Kate Allen’s Alison Kaine series is a prime example, but in Sims’ third novel the relationship between the narrator and the crime victims is too intimate for that sort of humor to work. However, Sims’ novel does have wit aplenty, often generated, as in the earlier two novels, by Lillian’s interaction with her pet rabbit, Todd.

So, while there may not be any guffaws, there’s still humor, and I think Sims gets the amount of it just right. Again, Lucky Stiff is different from the first two books in the series but, bottom line, Lillian is still Lillian, She’s changed as a result of the circumstances she encounters but at some level she’s still the impulsive, error-prone, caring, inquisitive character we loved in Holy Hell. I especially enjoy when an author allows her protagonist to grow from book to book, and that is definitely what happens here. Personally, I would expect the next novel to return to the lighter tone of the first two bucks, but for Lillian to have more depth after the events of this novel.

To sum up, Lucky Stiff is very well-written, interesting on several levels, compelling at times, and moving without being sentimental. It is well worth your time and money.

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