Title: Craks in a Marriage
Author: Barbara Barrett
Genre: Cozy Mystery
When Sydney Bonner overhears a fellow mah jongg player arguing on the phone with her husband, she realizes the couple’s “perfect marriage” isn’t all it appears to be. A few days later, the husband is found dead, his head bashed in. Fearing she’ll be considered the most likely suspect, the widow prevails upon Sydney and her three friends—Marianne, Kat and Micki—to find out who really killed him.
Though none of these four fun-loving, take-charge retirees has any training as detectives, the women agree to launch a secret investigation. As they dig under the happy veneer of their community’s social life, they find more than enough suspects, from shady ladies to resentful golf buddies, to keep them looking over their shoulders.
Could the murderer be lurking among the talent in a chaotic production put on by Sydney’s husband, who will do anything to keep busy in retirement? Could the sheriff, who may have more than a professional interest in chanteuse Kat, end up pinning the crime on the women instead? Each discovery during their investigations and their weekly mah jongg game keeps them running as they close in on the killer—but the killer may also be closing in on them.
Olivia settled into a chair. “Before she or anyone else arrives, we need to talk.” She leaned closer. “I need your help in another way. I’m a proud woman, Sydney. I don’t like to rely on anyone else to solve my problems, but at the moment, I’m not in a position to do that.”
Caught off guard, Sydney set down her lists, not sure what was coming. “Solve your problems? What are you talking about?” As soon as the words were out, she wanted to retract them. What was she getting herself into?
“When the sheriff pulled me into his office earlier and you waited in the outer room, it wasn’t just to console me. He said there were questions about Paul he needed to ask right away.”
“About Paul’s life. People who might bear him a grudge. People to whom he may have owed money or insulted. I told him I didn’t know of anyone like that, although as a businessman in our community, he may have stepped on toes at times.”
Where was she going with this? Maybe she just wanted to talk, vent. “I’ve never been personally involved in, uh, situations like this, but I guess that would be the kind of thing the sheriff would need to know to start his investigation.”
“His investigation, yes. Then he started asking about Paul and me. Our marriage. Our relationship.”
Uh-oh. Sydney remembered the telephone call she’d overheard. Oh, God, the sheriff wouldn’t talk to Olivia’s friends and acquaintances, would he? What would she tell him if he did? She wasn’t one to skip over the truth. “I guess that would be part of his investigation as well.”
Olivia gripped her hands in what looked like a steely prayer. “I didn’t kill him, Sydney. You have to believe me.”
“But things haven’t been what I’d describe as happy between us lately. The sheriff is sure to uncover some of that. If he does, he might stop looking for the real culprit and tie it all on me.”
“But if you’re innocent, how could he make the charges stick?” Sydney blurted out her question, flabbergasted at the woman’s statement.
Olivia glanced away, as if not wanting to face her directly. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I suspect Paul was being unfaithful. I was about to confront him, as soon as I had more definite proof.”
Sydney opened her mouth and closed it just as fast. What could she say? What was she supposed to say?
“I know. You’re surprised. To our friends and the rest of the community, even to our children, we seemed like the perfect couple. No cares in the world. So supportive of each other.”
Maybe not that perfect, but until recently, Sydney would have agreed with the statement. “I, uh, had no idea.” Okay, sometimes she did stray a tad from the truth. When it would hurt someone else if she was too frank.
“Paul had a straying eye. Probably part of aging. Had to prove to himself he still had the old charm. For all I know, this might not have been the first liaison. He wasn’t as careful hiding things this time. That’s all.”
Sydney’s mind skipped around, trying to connect loose ends in Olivia’s words with other observations of late. Would Olivia kill Paul over an affair? Sydney couldn’t dismiss the possibility, despite Olivia’s claim of innocence. Olivia had admitted she was a proud woman. No doubt about that from her play at mah jongg. Would she stand by and let the man cheat on her? What if he wanted a divorce? Would she allow that to happen? Probably not. But the idea of Olivia bashing him in the head didn’t wash. She might be a woman who took action, but she was precise, methodical. If she decided to off Paul, she would do it in a less sloppy way that wouldn’t lead back to her.
“Did you tell that to the sheriff?
Olivia pressed her lips together. “No. Like I told you, I only suspected Paul of playing around. If he was seeing someone else, let the sheriff discover it on his own.”
Sydney wondered what she’d do if she were in Olivia’s place. Not that Trip would ever cheat. If for no other reason, although there were plenty of others, the man was too busy keeping himself busy in retirement to have time to mess around. “You need to prepare yourself, then. Because Sheriff Rick Formero is no pushover. If there’s something to find out, he will.”
“That’s why I need your help.”
“What? How?” This conversation was getting weirder and weirder.
“I need to spend the next few days with my children getting through the funeral and handling the estate, but I doubt the sheriff will back away from his investigation during that time. I need for you to help me discover who really did kill Paul.”
Had she heard the woman correctly? “I’m not an investigator.”
“That’s just it. No one would suspect you of gathering information for me. But you and those cohorts of yours probably know everything that’s going on in this town. Use that talent to help me clear my name.”
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Why is your featured book a must-read?
This is a must-read book because it reads fast and it presents an intriguing plot, likeable characters and a resolution that keeps you guessing until the end. It takes place in a small town in central Florida and focuses on friendships and community. This is the first book in the series, so the reader can read firsthand how the four plucky heroines came to investigate murders in their otherwise benign community. The reader doesn’t need to know how to play mah jongg or even like the game to appreciate this series; mah jongg is the vehicle that frames every story. Besides solving at least one murder in every book, the series carries a long-term arc chronicling the second careers of the four protagonists as well as the romantic lives of two.
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Barbara Barrett started reading mysteries when she was pregnant with her first child to keep her mind off things like her changing body and food cravings. When she’d devoured as many Agatha Christies as she could find, she branched out to English village cozies and Ellery Queen.
Later, to avoid a midlife crisis, she began writing fiction at night when she wasn’t at her day job as a human resources analyst for Iowa State Government. After releasing eleven full-length romance novels and one novella, she returned to the cozy mystery genre, using one of her retirement pastimes, the game of mah jongg, as her inspiration. Not only has it been a great social outlet, it has also helped keep her mind active when not writing.
Craks in a Marriage, the first book in her “Mah Jongg Mystery” series, features four friends who seek the murderer of another mah jongg player’s husband before she is charged. None of the four is based on an actual person. Each is an amalgamation of several mah jongg friends with a lot of Barbara’s imagination thrown in for good measure. The four will continue to appear in future books in the series.
Barbara is married to man she met her senior year of college. They have two grown children and eight grandchildren.
Now retired, she is a resident of Florida, although she spends her summers in Iowa, her home state. She earned her B.A. degree in History from the University of Iowa and her Master’s Degree in History from Drake University.
When not in front of her laptop creating her next story, she plays mah jongg, knits and enjoys lunches with friends.
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