Plain Jane

Lesbian fiction author Ellen Hart loses her way with latest Jane Lawless mystery, ‘Lost Women’

The Lost Women of Lost Lake, by Ellen Hart. Minotaur Press (2011), $26, 320 pp.

Cordelia Thorn figured she would just lend a quick hand. Tessa Cornell, Cornelia’s old friend in the northern Minnesota ’burg of Lost Lake, had taken a tumble and hurt her leg. Tessa was directing the community play, so somebody needed to finish the job while she was healing; Cornelia volunteered, and invited her best friend, Jane Lawless, along. Jane, a restaurateur and part-time private investigator, was still mourning the death of her long-time partner; a trip would do her good.

Tessa was happy to have help with the play, but she didn’t need any company — definitely not some P.I. wannabe.

Jonah Ivorsen hated moving, so when he decided to hitchhike from St. Louis to Lost Lake, he was sure his aunt Jill and Jill’s wife, Tessa, would let him stay with them. But then a body was discovered and another one followed it fast. The authorities were zeroing in on a mysterious fire, and Tessa was obviously lying to everybody. Can Jane Lawless sort things out before someone else dies?

Oh, how I love books with Jane Lawless in them! Jane is an unlikely heroine and reluctant private eye who doesn’t seem to want her hobby to turn into work, yet there’s a will-she-make-it-permanent thread in this book that’s satisfactorily solved. There’s also a possible romance angle that slyly teases readers.

But as much as I love Ellen Hart’s main character, the supporting cast in The Lost Women of Lost Lake almost all need to take a dive. I had to work to keep my eyes from rolling, not only because of the cliché peripheral characters but also for the cliché things they say. Triteness definitely taints this otherwise fine mystery.

Fans of the Jane Lawless series should be able to overlook these faults, but if you’re not already a fan, start with another book. For you, The Lost Women of Lost Lake will not be looked upon swimmingly.

— Terri Schlichenmeyer

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 25, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

A Christmas memory: Sharla’s goodies

This time of year, it’s hard to walk into the office breakroom and not encounter free food: Turkeys, hams, cookies, brownies, popcorn, doughnuts, cupcakes, dropped off by business associates or left over from holiday celebrations held by others in the office. It’s addictive and bad for you but always welcome.

But this year, also a little sad.

I walked into the breakroom a few minutes ago to see an empty container than once housed homemade brownies — none of which I got. I immediately had a pang of anger. “Did Sharla bring by her goodies and everyone get to them before I found out?” I thought for a brief second. And then I remembered: No, she did not. Sharla died last week of brain cancer.

I did not know Sharla well. She worked part-time as a driver for Dallas Voice for many years, though she didn’t spend much time in the office unless she was filling in for her wife, Maryann Ramirez, who for ages was the distribution manager for the Voice. Maryann was (and is!) a strong personality who always seemed tamed by Sharla’s sweetness. Maryann talked so affectionately to Sharla on the phone (her work station was outside for a long time), and about Sharla around the office.

Every Christmas — and truth be told, other holidays too, or for no occasion at all — Maryann would bring in baked goods Sharla had made for all of us. She wasn’t in the office to share them with us; it was a totally selfless gift. And while I always said thank you and tried never to take her generosity for granted, this year it resonates with me especially knowing that era is over. No more treats from Sharla. This is sad for me and everyone else in the office; but I can hardly imagine what it is like for Maryann.

This is a difficult time of year to suffer loss: The holidays magnify everything, and it’s having free time and exchanging gifts is something a lot of people look forward to, so to have that experience cut short is especially heartbreaking (particularly since everyone else around you seems to be so happy). I broke up with an ex with finality on Christmas Eve years ago — that was hard. But to lose a partner like Maryann lost Sharla is unfathomable to me.

It’s easy to get lost in yourself this time of year, to attach too much significance to material things. But I will spent part of my time this season thinking about what I did not get: Sharla’s brownie bars. And that will make the holiday more important to me.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones