From the BLURB:
Meet Nina Quinn, garden landscaper extraordinaire and very amateur sleuth, in this charming cosy series that is perfect for fans of Carolyn Hart.
Nina Quinn has had enough of her cheating cop husband. His affair with his partner has driven her close to the edge--and him out of their home. Nina, the owner of Taken By Surprise, a landscaping business that specializes in surprise garden makeovers, already has too much on her plate--her delinquent stepson has let his pet snake loose in the house, and her nosy mother won't stop pestering her to get her bridesmaid's dress fitted for her sister's upcoming nuptials. But it's the strange disappearance of gardening tools--including a very expensive set of hoes--that really throws a wrench in things. And when she gets a call that her oldest friend's father-in-law, a beloved old man who introduced her to landscaping, has been murdered, Nina knows that it's time to start digging for clues to the frustrating, mysterious, and downright evil things that have disturbed her peaceful Ohio hometown.
‘A Hoe Lot of Trouble’ is the first book in the ‘Nina Quinn’ cozy mystery series by Heather Webber.
The books opens with 29-year-old Nina Quinn stuffing photos of her cheating cop husband down the garbage disposal. Nina and Kevin have been married for eight years, he an older widower came into the marriage with then seven-year-old son, Riley – but after an incident with lipstick on his boxers, Kevin came clean to cheating on Nina with his new partner. Now Nina is living with Riley while Kevin shacks up with his new squeeze … at the same time Riley’s pet snake is MIA, and gardening tools from Nina’s thriving ‘Taken By Surprise’ landscaping business are missing. To top it all off, one of Nina’s close childhood friends has just been devastated by the sudden death of her father-in-law, and reaches out to Nina to ask for help from her (and Kevin) when the family suspects foul play.
I love me a good cozy-mystery. It’s a sub-genre I fell I love with after ploughing through Charlaine Harris’s ‘Aurora Teagarden’ and ‘Lily Bard’ backlist, but I haven’t really had much luck in finding a cozy series I love as much as either of those since. If you don’t know what a ‘cozy’ is, check out cozy-mystery.com for some guidance – but in a nutshell there’s usually a punny title, small town mystery, unlikely armchair sleuth and I personally have a preference for some romance to balance-out the murder rate. Webber’s ‘Nina Quinn’ ticks all these boxes, but still didn’t manage to sucker me in as wholeheartedly as Charlaine Harris did in her cozy hey-day.
Nina’s tentative connection to the investigation in her friend’s father-in-law’s death is that she has the ‘inside-scoop’ with her husband as the local cop. Little does Nina’s friend know that Nina and Kevin are splitsville, but Nina is still intrigued enough by the oddities in the man’s death to stick her nose in. This isn’t unusual for a cozy, when an average Joe thinks they can bring something to an unsolved case that the police can’t – it’s kinda the whole suspend disbelief catalyst behind every cozy. But normally the person’s average Joe job compliments their sleuthing in some way – Aurora Teagarden was a librarian, and all walks of life came through her stacks. Lily Bard was a cleaner, and literally had access to the skeletons in people’s closets. Nina’s being a landscape gardener really has no impact on the case (a side-story about Nina’s tools going missing ends up nowhere near the actual murder) and for that reason the entire series feels like it’s starting out on uneven ground … especially because Nina’s having a cop-husband is definitely not going to last, if the events in this book are anything to go by.
On the topic of Nina and Kevin – I really wasn’t put off by a cheating spouse storyline. Truth be told, I more often than not enjoy a good infidelity storyline – it aligns me with the wronged partner protagonist straight away, and there’s just something bruise-pokingly good about reading infidelities.
He cleared his throat. What was left of his dark hair blew in the breeze. Finally he looked at me, his green eyes troubles. “I’m sorry about Kevin, Nina.”
Ahh. News travelled fast in the Ceceri household. My mother must have gotten to him while I talked to Riley.
“It’s okay, Dad.”
“I know what your mother thought of him, but I always thought him honourable.”
“I think he still is, in some ways.” Man, that was hard to say.
“Not in the ways that count.”
I bit my lip. “I suppose you’re right.”
Furthermore, one of my all-time favourite crime thriller series started out with the protagonists being divorced after his cheating (Karin Slaughter’s ‘GrantCounty’). But the Kevin/Nina story in ‘A Hoe Lot of Trouble’ feels frustratingly underdeveloped – I think it’s a real cop out that Kevin has moved out of home when the story starts, so is out-of-sight-out-of-mind for most of the book. A very tentative alternate romance is hinted at with Riley’s vice-principal, but it’s so far off in the distance I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t even a major plot in book #2.
The lack of Kevin and the development of their fractured marriage was indicative of another issue I had with this first book – all the secondary characters! There were so many, I lost track of who was actually involved in Nina’s amateur sleuthing, who worked for her in landscaping, who was on the police force, and who was associated with Riley’s school – Nina’s inner-circle was so underdeveloped that she felt lonely in this book. Even her step-son is underdeveloped, even as he’s living under her roof; and while she speaks of affection for him, his sullen typical teenager cliché character left me feeling doubly-wounded on Nina’s behalf, that her ex has lumped her with his ungrateful son.
But there were bright spots in this book. Nina is a genuinely likeable character, trudging on and committing to helping her friend even amidst her own heartbreak. She also doesn’t break down with the loss of her husband, but gets angry and starts to get even – an admirable turnover. The mystery is intriguing, and kept me turning pages even while the lacking relationships bought some of the book’s momentum down.
I will read more in this series, if only because I’m intrigued to see where the odd family dynamic of Kevin/Nina and Riley goes. But I do hope that Webber gets better at establishing Nina’s inner-circle, and lets this feisty protagonist confront her husband rather than quietly rallying away from him.