Book Review: Died On the Vine by Joyce Harmon

Died On the Vine
A Passatonnack Winery Mystery
Joyce Harmon
Joyce Harmon, January 2012
Available in various ebook formats

From the author—

1996 – dial-up internet, car phones! Tech pioneer Cissy Rayburn loves the new technology that brings the world to her fingertips and allows her to be a contract software manual writer from her home nestled in the vineyards of the Virginia countryside. She’s left the fast lane with her retired government bureaucrat husband Jack, and they’ve turned their summer place into a winery.

But the past intrudes on their idyllic thoroughly modern country life when Colonel Obadiah Winslow comes to call. Winslow, famous (or notorious) for his belief that countless soldiers were left behind in Vietnam to rot in commie prisons, tells Cissy that he believes that her first husband Jimmy, reported KIA thirty years ago, is still alive. Cissy’s not buying it – but could it be true?

Three days later, Winslow is dead in the vineyard, stabbed with Jack’s pruning shears. Cissy is sure that Jack didn’t do it, but can she convince the sheriff? And if Jack didn’t do it, who did?

The Passatonnack Winery in rural Virginia is the central setting of this cozy mystery but the Vietnam War and those who were lost are its heart.  There have been MIA and KIA soldiers in every conflict but Vietnam stands out for sheer numbers as well as those infrequent touching moments when a family gains confirmation of a loved one’s fate. The idea that someone could use this vulnerability for his own purposes is, of course, horrible but we’ll always have con men, won’t we? I’m not sure whether Ms. Harmon is old enough to have lived through that terrible war (and war it truly was no matter what some may want to call it), but she has handled a still-sensitive subject with grace and real understanding.

It doesn’t hurt that the characters we meet in Died on the Vine are so very likeable. Cissy and Jack Rayburn could be your next door neighbors, caught in a potential trap but ready to meet it head on. Cissy’s friend Julia Barstow, journalist Mary Nguyen and attorney Andrew Billington Smith (great name) round out the sleuthing team and they all snoop quite well without putting themselves in dire situations. And who can resist Polly, Beau and Tough Stuff, canines and a kitten who do exactly what four-footers are supposed to do and no more but with such charm?

I have to admit that I didn’t spot the killer but there was nothing unfair about that—I just didn’t pick up on the hints. Readers should pay special attention to the epilogue which shows that the consequences of a crime are not always what you might expect. Altogether, I have to say that this debut mystery with a bit of history and a dollop of humor is decidedly entertaining and well done and I’m looking forward to the next in the series, Bidding on Death.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2012.

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