Appraisal for Murder by Elaine Orr opens with Jolie Gentil’s having moved in with her Aunt Madge to Ocean Alley, a small tourist beach town in New Jersey, after the arrest of her husband for embezzlement in order to repay his immense gambling debts. Further, Richard drained all their joint accounts, leaving Jolie to start life over in the town where she lived a year and attended 11th grade. She gets a job as an appraiser of property and makes a few friends in the community, which is a challenge for Jolie, as she had been so wrapped up in her own life’s challenges during high school that she made very few friends. But she approaches those still around in trying to start over with them from the perspective as an adult, as the class’s 10-year reunion approaches. Happy to start her new job as an appraiser, Jolie begins with the home of Mrs. Riordan, whose son Michael attended Jolie’s high school class, only to walk in on the woman lying in bed dead.
The police immediately jump to the conclusion that Michael has killed his mother by first drugging her with the muscle relaxant for his back pain and then strangling her when the overdose of the drug fails to kill her. Refusing to give any evidence for their having arrested Michael, the police remain complacent and do not look further into the case. Thus, convinced that Michael would never have hurt his mother, Jolie decides to find the answer for herself, despite the strong objections of both police and Michael himself. Jolie’s life gains further complications when Joe Pedone, a man connected to a money lender owed over $80,000 by Jolie’s estranged husband, Robbie, comes after her to demand that she pay the debts owed by him, and his threats become serious.
The biggest strength of this book is its unique, round characters. Jolie gets reunited with Ramona, the main clerk at the stationers Purple Cow, who clues her in to any news or what others have been saying, since Aunt Madge has a strong opinion against any form of gossip. The character who really comes alive is Scoobie, Jolie’s chief friend the year she attended high school in Ocean Alley, whom she would sneak out after bedtime to meet on the boardwalk. Scoobie has lived a very difficult life, turning to drugs and alcohol at his worst points but getting clean with the help of AA. The character of Jolie’s husband, Robby, who lets his own addiction get the better of him to the extent that he turns criminal, shows the contrast of what Scoobie could have become. Michael wavers between behaving romantically toward Jolie and pulling away from her. While he is presented as the romantic hero with a budding relationship with Jolie and the unfairly accused whom Jolie must free from suspicion, he still came across as a complex character, not entirely a good guy.
I also enjoyed the animals in the book. Mr. Rogers and Miss Piggy, a pair of dogs who love prunes so much that they will destroy a plastic bowl in order to get to the prunes, belong to Aunt Madge. But then Jolie brings with her Jazz, her cat who initially shows a lot of fear of the dogs, but by the end of the book, Jazz actually chases the canines instead of the other way around!
My one complaint about this book is the portrayal of the police vs. the portrayal of the civilian Jolie when it comes to investigating the case. The police come across as incompetent, making an arrest of Michael with no good evidence and even a poor motive. I do not like seeing the police shown in such a poor light. Jolie must take over the investigation because no one else is doing so. However, even her own efforts do not provide a very strong mystery in general.
The audio version of this book is performed by Paula Faye Leinweber, who narrates the book from Jolie’s perspective very ably. Speaking clearly, she uses a broader, more universal accent instead of a New Jersey accent that Jolie would normally use. However, many readers would have difficulty understanding such an accent, so I think the decision to use the more common accent was a responsible one.
Appraisal for Murder shines with flavor. The mystery has interesting elements, though it could be stronger. But the characters and culture of the community make up for that in helping to make this a very enjoyable book. I give this book four stars.
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