Caught Dead Handed by Carol J. Perry is the first book in her cosy mystery series, Witch City Mysteries. It’s about Lee Barret, who returns to her home-town, Salem, Massachusetts, to interview for a job as a reporter for WICH-TV. But the only opening they have available is for a call-in psychic hotline to host the late night horror films after the previous host ends up dead. Reluctantly accepting the gig, Lee starts seeing real events in the obsidian ball she uses as a prop, wondering if perchance she truly is gifted. To make things even spoopier, Lee finds out that Ariel was an actual practising witch, which becomes even more evident when the cat that Lee inherited from the late Ariel starts exhibiting some unique powers of his own.
I picked this up around Halloween because I knew it would have the perfect ambiance for the beloved spoopy time of year. When the pumpkins and typical Halloween festivities of Salem became the novel’s atmosphere, I felt rather satisfied. After finishing it up, I can say that I’ll read the second novel of the series at the very least, however, there are a couple of things that I hope shall evolve somewhat as it progresses.
The parts that I loved with my whole heart include the tabby kitty cat (of course), the paranormal elements, and the relationship the character shares with her aunt. Stuff I didn’t care for included the comments on physical appearance, the speedy romance, and Lee’s characterisation. I also question the motives somewhat, which I’ll discuss at the very end in a labelled section, so folx who don’t want spoilers won’t have to worry about accidentally reading it.
Like all the other cosies I’m infatuated with, I was initially drawn to Witch City Mysteries because of the yellow cat that’s on the cover of all the books. He looked adorable and I kept my fingers crossed that he’d have a decent presence in the novel. Not only was he actively engaged in the plot, but he was also a victim! I feel like there is much more to the kitty than what’s been revealed in book one, but all in all he’s an excellent reason to read Caught Dead Handed. With a superb judgment of others, some sass, and a lot of compassion, O’Ryan is just too damn charming to resist.
The compassion isn’t limited to the feline friend either. The relationship that Lee has with her aunt is so heartfelt and endearing. The way her aunt cares for her, not only like a parental figure, but also a best friend was delightful. Their chemistry is natural and their conversations very easy to get lost in. I also appreciated the way they look out for one another, particularly when the paranormal shtick starts kicking up.
Lee is an interesting character compared to other cosy protagonists because she has a special ability, and this plays a big part in how she discovers clues and approaches people. I enjoy the spice of uniqueness that the supernatural trait brings to the genre, but it can feel like a slight clash once in a while in the way that Lee jumps to conclusions and tends to be all over the spectrum with respect to fear, bravery, and suspicion. There’s no real cohesiveness to her reactions that help to establish her as one type of character versus another. It’s scatter-brained and it makes it challenging to establish a connection with her.
This isn’t really limited to Lee either. The detective in the book comes off as quite an idiot. Most cops in cosy mysteries aren’t the smartest, but they also aren’t unintelligent or rely on the main character so heavy-handedly, but that’s the vibe I received from the local copper in this book. This was further exasperated by how quickly him and Lee formulate an intimately emotional connection. It was super rushed and lessened the quality of their engagements by a large margin. Then there are the side characters, who are mostly employees at the TV station.
I understand that with working in the public eye, such as broadcast journalism, there are certain professional attributes that people want from the anchors they watch. But the fatphobic comments and the superficial-laced snide titbits made me uncomfortable and even a bit ticked off. As someone who is plump and doesn’t see the folly in being so, it just annoyed me when people talk about fat people like some kind of plague on humanity. It’s not dripping from one page to the next, mind you. But there is a strong enough presence of it within the novel to stir some feelings on the matter. The last bit that may be a make it or break it for some readers includes the motives and the finale.
The main culprit ends up being a person with Dissociative Identity Disorder which was a result of them being sexually abused as a child. One of their personalities is of a different gender, and in order to “protect the sanity” of this character, their family members and doctors helped them to transition completely into the protective identity. But certain trauma triggers causes the main personality to come out of the woodwork and cause some chaos.
This is extremely dark stuff for a cosy mystery and it left me shocked. One of the reasons I love cosy mysteries is because they don’t deal with stuff like sexual violence and abuse, or severe, debilitating mental illness, so having its presence in Caught Dead Handed makes me wonder if this should really be labelled as a cosy mystery.
My other concern is how trans readers will react to this situation. As a trans nonbinary person, I felt deeply uncomfortable and even moderately offended that a seemingly trans identity ended up being the reason for everything that goes on. There’s also the association of trans identities stemming as a result of abuse, particularly sexual abuse. The subtext of it all is just quite disconcerting. I do acknowledge that there are folx with Dissociative Disorders that transcend a singular gender, and I’m not commenting on that portion, but more the representation and presentation of that illness and how it may impact a whole separate and valid community within the confines of this novel. Some trans people may not see it as toxic or hurtful at all, while others may feel heavily affected by it. I just wanted to make a point of mentioning it here because of how much it startled me, personally, and left me with mixed feelings about that finale.
Caught Dead Handed wasn’t a bad start to a new cosy mystery series. While there are quite a few elements that I find very questionable, I was entertained enough by the cat and the paranormal qualities to want to give the second novel a go. I think after that I will have a much better grasp of whether this series is one that’s worth the investment in the long run. In the meantime, I would cautiously RECOMMEND this to curious folx, but do mind the warnings within the spoiler section if a reader identifies as trans.
Publication Date: September 2014
Publisher: Kensington (978-1617733697)
Genre: Cosy Mystery
Series: Witch City Mystery #1
Page Count: 416
Content Warnings: Death. Mild blood. Discussion of alcoholism. Attempted murder of an animal. Anime abuse. Some mild sexual innuendo. Misogyny and sexism. Sexual abuse of a child (past event). Depiction of severe mental illness and associated trauma. Questionable material pertaining to trans identities.
Availability: In-print; paperback, eBook, and audiobook formats available.