Fool’s Puzzle is a bit older than a lot of the novels I’ve covered lately, which are generally from the early 2000’s and 2010’s. The Benni Harper Series, on the other hand, is from the mid-’90s. That said, it does cover a lot of the modern conventions of the genre, making it feel very much like a predecessor of many of the modern Cozy series.
The novel stars Benni Harper, a relatively-recently widowed woman who has recently made a change in her life related to her bereavement. As a result, she has moved to San Celina, a nearby trendy California town, to pursue a new job as the director of the local folk-art museum. Despite this, the town is still close to her deceased husband’s family ranch, so she still keeps in regular contact with both her own family and her former in-laws.
Naturally, it doesn’t take too long for this new lifestyle to lead to the inevitable, which in mysteries means sudden death. In this case, Benni finds one of the artists who had been working late after hours at the artist co-op associated with the museum dead. Even more unfortunately, Benni also spotted her sister speeding away from the site, with reason to believe she might have been there – facts that she omits from her first report to temporary police chief, Gabe Ortiz, who is introduced as a sort of “big city” cop from Los Angeles filling in for the more provincial chief out on medical leave. Not to spoil too much, but naturally, as the investigation continues, there are plenty of twists and turns, and numerous other potential suspects turn up – and Benni starts to find Gabe more interesting on a personal level as well.
One thing I really appreciated about Fool’s Puzzle is that the mystery starts off almost right away. A lot of Cozies, particularly more recent ones, seem to spend a very long time leading up to the mystery. While this can do a good job of giving the location and cast distinct character, I definitely appreciate more of a “get straight to it” attitude more often than not, and this one gets to the murder at a pace I definitely appreciate.
Just as a warning, keep in mind when reading older material (and yes, I think this qualifies, written 25 years ago) that there might be some dated material. I don’t recall Benni herself doing anything particularly inappropriate (though standards may differ), but some of the other characters portrayed as more “country” might occasionally use language that might be considered offensive today (or then, most likely).