Sweetheart Deal is so witty and downright snazzy I forgot I was reading a cozy. It’s hilarious too, and at times touches near meta territory as our extremely self-aware protagonist, Maddie Michaels, a.k.a. Mrs. Frugalicious, analyzes her own predicament as if she’s the one being critical of the plot points and clues laid out in her path. (Not to worry; It’s a well-crafted plot with a decidedly delicious motivation behind the murder).
Mrs. Frugalicious is “way too smart for the usual reality TV rigamorale” but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. She was first a “well-heeled housewife” (I have not read the first two installments in this series) before starting an anonymous blog under the name Mrs. Frugalicious after her husband Frank managed to lose the family nest egg in a Ponzi scheme. Her viral blog morphed into a reality show where she dispenses advice to the budget-minded. Frequently, her tips and insights show up as funny footnotes here (but not often enough as far as I’m concerned). In Sweetheart Deal, she heads to a Mexican beach resort to do a feature show on why and how destination weddings can be approached as a bargain opportunity.
Linda Joffe Hull takes her time with detailing the scene and populating the story—there’s no rush to the dead body found floating in the Olympic-size reflection pool. That body belongs to timeshare sales manager Alejandro Espinoza. (If you’ve ever sat through even one timeshare sales presentation and the protracted process of freeing your no-longer-human self from that peculiar form of sales torture, this book is for you.) Alejandro had had been circling around Maddie Michaels in search of a romantic conquest. Maddie and Frank are “together,” after all, for purposes of family appearances and to keep ratings afloat, so she’s got her eyes open. Maddie isn’t opposed to a drink or two, but is wary. Was it flirting? Or part of the salesmanship?
When Alejandro’s body turns up, however, the story takes off – and you realize that Hull has staged the story with care. A well-populated cast of characters includes all the key personnel at Hacienda de la Fortuna, the Family Frugalicious television crew, the wedding party itself and others. There’s the “script” for the reality show and Maddie’s painful realization that this is far too many murders for one budget columnist to solve in a brief spurt of amateur sleuthing. Finally, a character in an amateur sleuth mystery with some sense of what’s real. And, she’s in a “reality” show which she knows is carefully managed version of “life.” Is the script for the “reality” show part of the murderer’s masterful scenario? Which people are “real” and which ones are playing roles? Were Maddie’s interactions with Alejandro prior to his demise part of the whole set-up? Or legitimate sparks?
Maddie’s thorough analytical skills, coupled with her three-dimensional personality and fueled by a sharp, witty narrative style, gives Sweetheart Deal its drive. It’s clever and meaty, not syrupy. Mid-chase, Maddie isn’t too busy to dispense tips (say, about the pros and cons of renting jet skis) and soon the entire Family Frugalicious is stuck in a dicey, watery trap. Even trapped, Maddie is as real as her thoughtful tips. She may not want to see herself in another one of Linda Hull’s razor-sharp “scripts.” But we do.
Previously reviewed – The Big Bang; stand-alone novel not in the “Mrs. Frugalicious” series. Including Q & A with Linda Joffe Hull.