Twilight Falls
Juneau Black

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

CALLED IT. Mirror Lake is still my favorite, with Twilight Falls a close second. While Mirror Lake wins on sheer vibes, however, Twilight Falls has a more satisfying solution, i.e., it’s kinder and slightly less predictable. (That’s not to say that it’s not predictable at all. It’s very predictable.)

Anyway, spring has finally come to Shady Hollow. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and somebody else has just this second expired of extremely unnatural causes. (It might be worth noting that the crime rate has spiked in the village since the arrival of Vera Vixen, though she has nothing to do with any sort of crime.) The victim du jour is Shelby Atwater, an otter with a grudge. As the village handymen, Shelby and his son Jonah are known in Shady Hollow for their ability to fix just about anything. Lately, though, Jonah has been less interested in his work, owing to a blossoming romance with Anastasia “Stasia” von Beaverpelt. This has created some explosive arguments between the young couple and Shelby, who insists that romance should only take place within the confines of one’s own species. Stasia’s mother Edith is no more enthusiastic about the relationship than Shelby, though this is mostly because the von Beaverpelts have had to reduce their circumstances to compensate for the late Reginald von Beaverpelt’s blackmail payments to Ruby Ewing. In the absence of both her husband and a substantial chunk of her former fortune, Edith has been hoping to marry her daughters into wealthy beaver families. Stasia’s sister Esmeralda (“Esme”) thwarted their mother’s plans first by getting a job at Joe’s Mug and then by turning out to be good at it, so Stasia was her last remaining hope, or she was until she fell in love with a proletarian otter.

All of this lends itself to a bubbling tension that quickly boils into presumed murder when Shelby is pushed over the edge of Twilight Falls, a popular day trip destination, by an unidentifiable assailant. Though the fight is witnessed by dozens of creatures, among them Vera and Orville, no one can describe Shelby’s opponent. Some say it had a beaver-shaped tail, but there’s no other information to go on. Already stunned by the apparent death of his father, Jonah loses his last comfort when Orville publicly arrests Stasia based on a trail of evidence that seems to point directly to her. Vera, however, isn’t sold on Orville’s solution, particularly as the evidence he’s collected – while difficult to refute – has all been discovered under suspiciously fortuitous circumstances; and it doesn’t particularly help that Shelby’s body has never been found. While Edith hires hotshot newbie lawyer Flint Lennox from the firm Castor & Castor, Jonah throws an additional complication into the mix when he confesses to Shelby’s murder and demands that he be arrested in Stasia’s place. Orville reluctantly complies, and the newly freed Stasia vows to free Jonah by any means necessary. Meanwhile, Orville starts to receive reports of a cloaked figure lurking around the outskirts of town, which is rumored to be a ghost despite its apparent need for material sustenance. (In an ironic turn of events, Lefty is burgled by this ghost. He’s not happy about it.)

As the clues spiral wildly out of control, Vera reconsiders the implications of Shelby’s missing body. Her biggest breakthrough comes not from any evidence from the scene of the supposed crime, but from a biography detailing the life and exploits of famed rabbit magician Auguste Lapin, the Conjuring Coney. Throughout her investigation, Vera has repeatedly returned to one solid fact: Shelby was a theater buff. He regularly helped the local theater company with their set construction, and he is known to have worked with Lapin in his youth. Putting these facts together with the empty search for Shelby’s remains, Vera realizes that Shelby faked his own death using a prop designed to look vaguely like a beaver. He obviously did this to frame Stasia for his murder, but he lost control of the show when Jonah unexpectedly confessed. Vera tricks him into revealing himself with Orville’s help, and almost the entire town returns to the Falls in time for Shelby’s attempted exit. Knowing his reputation is in shreds and that he can never escape what he’s done, Shelby tries to commit suicide, but Stasia and Jonah persuade him to live. Nevertheless, he does almost go over the Falls through sheer accident; however, Orville came prepared, and Shelby is rescued and transported securely to jail, though no one is sure what he should be charged with.

The problem of Shelby’s sentencing is solved with some consultation from Officer Philomena “Phil” Ambler, police chief of the nearby town of Highbank. Given that Shelby has expressed genuine remorse without actually being innocent, Phil advises Orville to sentence him to community service. Orville happily assigns Shelby to dredge and clean the Shady Hollow millpond, which is a job that both suits his skills and benefits the community. Finally, with both their parents grudgingly onboard, Stasia and Jonah marry in a sweet ceremony at the von Beaverpelt mansion. In a stroke of genius, they hire newcomer Muriel Lodge, a hedgehog with a gourmet popcorn cart, and she keeps the entire guest list happy with her special strawberry sugar popcorn. As a cherry on the wholesomeness cake, Vera learns that Esme has accepted the romantic overtures of lawyer Lennox, who fell head over tail in love with her the moment he spotted her in Joe’s Mug. (Esme was not impressed upon first acquaintance, but has come to find his courtship agreeable.) Both story and case close with Vera and Orville dancing the night away, surrounded by their friends and neighbors.

Last review I said I wanted to see more of Phil, and her brief appearance here did not disappoint, although it was a little bit short for my liking. All the same, I love these characters even more than I did at the end of Mirror Lake. Despite some lingering disagreements, Vera and Orville have started to learn the value of teamwork, and – more importantly – they have started to share evidence and conclusions with each other. This is the sort of thing that gives me hope for Orville’s competence: I’m not wild about the fact that Vera solves all his cases for him, especially when he’s the one who’s paid to keep the peace, but I believe he will continue to grow. I also love that even in his new role he is still very much a bear, and he’s not above eating cookies out of the trash. I still love Esme and both of the Joes, of course, and Lenore and Lefty and Sun Li. I love that the authors have started to expand Vera’s relationships with characters other than Lenore and Orville. Not that I have anything against either Lenore or Orville, but I love seeing Vera thrive in her new(ish) home. I love the cherry blossom lunch party with Lenore and Sun Li; I love following Vera around town even on her more ordinary days. I am also excited for the introduction of Muriel, who seems like a lovely addition to the Shady Hollow population. While I am slightly annoyed with her insistence on withholding her very harmless background information, given the need for a complete picture of the town’s residents during this latest murder investigation, that is entirely her right, and I can’t fault her for that.

And – possibly unpopular opinion – I even kind of like Shelby, now that he’s come around on the interspecies marriage issue. (Yes, it still weirds me out. But it bothers me less than it did when I was trying to understand the logistics of a beaver hooking up with a sheep.) His capitulation does not excuse his behavior in the slightest; nor does it soften the crime he committed out of hate. Yet he is shown to be remorseful, and he has a clear understanding of the consequences – both real and intended – of his actions. His punishment is appropriate, and he manages to reconcile with his son and his new daughter-in-law. Though he feels he doesn’t deserve to be a part of the wedding party after everything he’s done, he is still included in the ceremony, and it’s lovely. I must admit I don’t think much of Stasia and I never have, but she really showed her character in this book, and I’m hoping we’ll see more of her better side as the series progresses. I love that she and Jonah reach out to Shelby instead of pushing him over the Falls themselves. I believe that he can and will be reformed. He doesn’t have to be hateful forever.

Unfortunately, I do have to stand by my earlier statement. This book is less hair-tearingly painful than the last three but still predictable enough to be mildly disappointing at its most dramatic moment, that being, of course, Shelby’s reveal. For me the biggest tip-off was the persistent lack of a body, combined with the presence of the ghostly menace in the woods. After four books, the authors have yet to surprise me, and it feels like a very slight letdown. Even so, I like this resolution, and it is more satisfying than the previous three. Cold Clay made me wonder if the series was going to be one long string of murders either committed or revealed after Vera’s arrival, and if – horrid thought – she was in some cosmic way associated with the introduction of violent crime to Shady Hollow. While it is true that the crime rate is up, I am glad that not every book is going to feature a genuine murder. It would be very odd, not to mention highly improbable, if the murderers had all moved to Shady Hollow at the same time Vera did, especially given that serious crime was practically unheard of prior to the murder of Otto Sumpf.

With all that said, Shady Hollow has become one of my favorite series of all time. The characters grow more endearing with every book; the setting grows more charming. Maybe it’s just that the books look better by comparison as the real world drags itself bit by bit into the abyss, but I don’t care. This series is so sweet and so cozy, and, if it gets a little dark at times, the darkness never lasts for long. It is, in short, exactly what I need at this point in time and space, and I can’t wait to see what Vera and her friends will get up to this summer.