Mirror Lake
Juneau Black

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

Level of Shady Hollow obsession: buying all four audiobooks in one fell swoop after finishing the third book. This is the best book in the Shady Hollow series thus far, I will die on this hill. I might change my mind after I finish Twilight Falls, which I have been reading and loving, but any potential changes of heart will not detract from my feelings for Mirror Lake. While I started out lukewarm with Shady Hollow, I am now fully invested, and I am ready to follow this series to its bitterest end. And on that note, I have preordered the fifth book and am impatiently waiting for it to be July.

Mirror Lake picks up where Cold Clay left off, in the middle of a brisk, beautiful October. Despite the lovely weather and the excitement brought by the annual Harvest Festival, all is not entirely well: tensions are brewing between Police Chief Theodore Meade and Deputy Orville Braun, the latter of whom is so fed up with Chief Meade’s daily habit of skipping work for fishing trips that he finally announces his candidacy for the position of Police Chief. This is a problem for Meade, who has not had to campaign for the last several years, and the upcoming election throws Shady Hollow politics into turmoil. While the bears duke it out, intrepid reporter Vera Vixen has her paws full first dodging editor BW Stone’s demands that she cover the election despite a pretty major conflict of interest (Vera has been dating Orville since the end of book 1) and then investigating the alleged murder of Edward Springfield, a rat with an ailing mother and a large inheritance in silver mining. While murders are generally fairly straightforward, in that their victims are usually dead by the time of the investigation, Edward bucks this trend by appearing alive in front of his house despite the ire of his wife, Dorothy “Dot” Springfield, who insists that Edward has been (1) murdered and (2) replaced by a rat she doesn’t know. (My first thought: Is it twins? My second thought: IT IS NEVER TWINS, WATSON.)

Most of the town wants to dismiss Dot, who has a reputation for eccentricity and is commonly known as “Dotty,” but Vera smells a rat and begins a dogged investigation. As the clues pile up and Edward’s story starts sprouting some serious holes, Vera begins to suspect that Dot’s self-proclaimed husband is in fact Thomas Springfield, the long-banished black sheep of the Springfield family. This lines up neatly with both the silver inheritance and the death of Edward’s mother, and it would also explain Dot’s hostility to the new, unfamiliar Edward, as well as the headless body that recently turned up in the woods. There’s just two problems: Edward tells Vera that Thomas was his older brother, which rules out the possibility of impersonation, and a visit to the nearby town of Highbank, where Thomas was last seen, leads Vera to his grave. His death is confirmed by Highbank police chief Philomena “Phil” Ambler, who wasn’t able to identify the body herself but accepted the testimony of local mob boss Big Eddie. Yet even this is not completely straightforward: Edward’s behavior continues strange, and someone seems to want to put Vera out of commission before she can delve too greedily and too deep into Thomas’s past. Things only get more complicated when Professor Ambrosius Heidegger, Shady Hollow’s most pedantic scholar, indignantly claims that his pantry was burgled and his library rearranged during an extended absence.

The already bizarre case acquires an unasked-for wrinkle when Vera’s friend Lenore invites best-selling author Bradley Marvel to do a book signing at Nevermore Books. Known for his thrilling Percy Bannon novels, Marvel is a wolf with a massive oeuvre and an even more massive ego. Though the signing goes off without a hitch, he hangs around town long after his expected departure date, interfering with Vera’s investigation and just generally outstaying his already limited welcome. Worse, he quickly becomes infatuated with Vera, and he stalks the shit out of her under the guise of researching his next novel. He is useful exactly once; after that he continues on his way as an oblivious nuisance until he makes the mistake of inviting Vera to return to the city as his assistant. With no further use for his company – not that she had any to begin with – Vera finally tells him to fuck off, threatening to have Orville arrest him on charges of being an idiot (which, believe it or not, appears to be an actual crime under Shady Hollow law). With his pride ripped to shreds, Marvel leaves town as directed, but titles the next installment of the Percy Bannon series The Quick Dead Fox.

Meanwhile, the race for police chief boils over when Chief Meade attempts to bolster his fading image by arresting the raccoon Lefty for almost no reason, and, though Vera manages to smooth things over, the incident reinforces Meade’s inability to competently discharge the duties of his office. Frustrated with her inability to directly assist with Orville’s campaign, Vera manages to get involved by volunteering to help the town hall staff with voter registrations, and in so doing realizes that Thomas and Edward were born on the same day. With this one clue, verified by their mother’s registration, everything falls into place: Thomas was in major trouble with Big Eddie, but he persuaded him to help him carry out an elaborate inheritance scam. Learning that his mother was on her last legs, he faked his death, returned to Shady Hollow, and camped out in Heidegger’s house, helping himself to Heidegger’s food and researching Shady Hollow’s residents through Heidegger’s extensive collection of yearbooks. He then destroyed all evidence of his existence, murdered his brother, and took up residence in his family home, apparently failing to anticipate that Edward’s widow might be completely capable of distinguishing one twin from the other. Unfortunately for Thomas, he did not realize until it was too late that the terms of the will were incredibly specific – among other things, it stipulated that Edward and Dot must still be married in order to inherit – and so was forced to impersonate his dead brother far longer than he’d originally intended.

All of this is, of course, circumstantial at best, but Vera and Orville engineer a scheme to trick Edward/Thomas into falsifying legal documents in the presence of a police officer. (Not sure that would actually hold up in a real-world court, but, well, the whole book is a fantasy.) The case is clinched when Dot, who came along for the documents scheme, provides a crucial piece of information: while her so-called husband was seen eating a peanut butter sandwich earlier in the book, the real Edward had a fatal allergy to peanuts. Her testimony is backed up by Sun Li, a former surgeon who now runs the local Chinese restaurant, and who once saved Edward from anaphylactic shock after an unfortunate encounter with peanut sauce. With all of the evidence now firmly in hand, Orville arrests Thomas and goes on to win the election in a landslide, but his victory party is marred when the now-deposed former Chief Meade bursts in with the news that Thomas has escaped. After a violent final encounter, Vera and Dot manage to subdue Thomas long enough for Orville to arrest him again. When all is said and done, Vera writes up a shocking tell-all for the Herald, and then – naturally – she and Orville celebrate the conclusion of the case with coffee and pie at Joe’s Mug.

Sometimes procrastination pays. I have been putting off this review since I read the book in December, and I’m actually glad I did. It’s embarrassing when I have to use the audiobook to refresh my memory, but it forced me to completely rewrite the few paragraphs I had, and I am so much happier with the review now that that’s been done. I will also never say no to revisiting Mirror Lake, because this book fucking slaps. (No, the writing has not significantly improved. Just assume moving forward that the writing in this series is going to disappoint me, unless and until I say otherwise.) Prose aside, these books just keep getting better and better: Shady Hollow was fine and Cold Clay more habit-forming, but Mirror Lake marks the beginning of my obsessive love for these books. Part of Mirror Lake‘s success is owed to a stronger story – the first two books were a little weak in the story department – as well as an increased familiarity with the characters and the world, on the authors’ part as much as the readers’. Even if it’s not as completely immersive as the Redwall series, the animal protagonists are starting to feel less like a calculated gimmick and more like their own thing. I found it easier to slip into the world this go-round, and I didn’t feel the need to question anything.

It helps that the characters have been growing steadily more lovable from book to book. I really did not jive with the Vera/Orville romance in the first two books, (1) because it gave the books a more human flavor that I didn’t like and (2) because I didn’t care for the general tone of their relationship, which in my opinion involved a shade too much controlling condescension from Orville. With that said, I am 100% onboard after seeing their relationship progress in this book. I can’t blame Orville for wanting to keep Vera out of sensitive cases; investigation is his job, and, much though she claims to the contrary, Vera is not actually a detective. At the same time, though, I love that he’s loosening up around her. I love that she doesn’t just meekly listen to him; she fights like hell and she gets the case solved, and I respect that. While they butted heads a lot in the first two books, Orville has started to realize that nothing he says is going to keep Vera out of a good story, and I’m here for it. I also love Lenore, who is a darkly practical influence during Vera’s more dramatic moments. I really love Esmeralda “Esme” von Beaverpelt, a surprisingly resourceful heiress-turned-waitress. Hell, I even love Lefty and his relationship with the police bears, and I wish he’d stay out of trouble. But then, of course, he wouldn’t be Lefty if he did. There are no characters I genuinely dislike, and each book so far has added a couple of new lovelies. I’m particularly hoping we’ll see more of Officer Ambler in the future.

My one issue: the first two books were painfully predictable, and the third followed the trend. Two is a coincidence and three is a pattern, and at this point it’s starting to feel like a shrewd device to make the reader feel clever. Look, I love feeling clever, but part of the fun of a mystery is not knowing how it ends. If Octavia Butler’s villain reveal fell flat in Cold Clay, Thomas’s was even more anticlimactic because the whole setup was Vera not realizing sooner that a death can easily be faked for the right amount of money. I enjoyed her journey, but the solution was more disappointing than it should have been because it just seemed so. Fucking. Obvious. There was no other way it could have worked, assuming we took Dot at face value, which I did. On the other hand, in a way it’s good that it ended up the way it did, because it validates Dot. I really appreciate that Dot is never treated as crazy or stupid by the story itself: she is completely right, and everyone who thinks she’s lost her marbles is wrong. It’s as simple and empowering as that. At the end, she even gets the pleasure of conking Thomas on the head herself before he can stick Vera with a knife. Her story is so satisfying, and I wish we’d seen more of her.

Earlier I said that I couldn’t decide if I’d want to run away to Thune, Murk, or Shady Hollow, supposing I ever got the option to do so. Mirror Lake has made that decision for me. I want to live in Shady Hollow. I want to live in a quiet house in a quiet village where nothing ever happens (er, usually – it’s been an unusually busy couple of seasons), and all the gossip gets funneled through the coffee shop. I want to live right next door to a ferry that will carry me to all manner of charming little villages up and down the river, and I most especially want to visit Highbank Hideaway because holy crap Vera’s Highbank work trip is serious goals. I am dying to take myself on a solo writer’s retreat to some sweet little B&B. I will fully admit that Highbank Hideaway is part of the reason I love this book so much. It literally is my favorite part of the story. It’s too bad there was an obnoxious idiot stalker cramping Vera’s relaxation style, but, well, you can’t have everything.

Come what may with the rest of the series, I think Mirror Lake might end up being my special favorite of the Shady Hollow books. (Yes, because of the B&B. Lemme alone.) I really would love for the series to be better written, but this is one case where the writing matters less when the setting and the characters and the coziness are all immaculate. To be completely transparent, I tend to have snobbishly low expectations for cozy mysteries anyway, which I realize is a horrible attitude even if I can’t help it even just a little bit. To my point, however: while there are still turns of phrase that make me cringe and the authors’ obsessive use of epithets is driving me low-key insane, this series is so wonderful, and it’s building momentum. It has coaxed its way into my heart and onto my auto-buy list with its coffee and its pastries and its cozy lunches and its lackadaiscal way of life, and, most of all, with its stubborn, nosy, kindhearted fox of a reporter who lives in a charming den by herself, the first house she’s ever bought with her own money. I am a stalwart apartment-haunting introvert, but this book is making me want to do all manner of things, from visiting the local moose-run coffee shop (quite impossible, I’m afraid) to going to book talks (a bit more accessible).

TL;DR: This book is wonderful, this series is wonderful, I will die on this hill, don’t try to change my mind, I will send Orville after you.