Typically me, I have come into this series with the second book, although luckily `A Dead Red Heart' works fine as a stand alone novel. It was quite easy to pick up the background of the character Lalla Bains and arrive at the situation in which we now find her. In fact, in no time at all, it felt as though I knew her personally, such is the strength and personality of the characterisation.
You have to know right from the start, that this romantic mystery also has its fair share of humour and nothing is meant to be taken too seriously, which is just as well given the quirky nature of the disparate group of characters which the author has created and brought to life, in such spectacular fashion.
That includes Lalla Bains herself. Someone more unsuited to her job as a crop duster, both in appearance and personality, you couldn't wish to find and even being au fait with her background and tarnished reputation, doesn't prepare you for her quirky dispostition and flamboyant personality. Mind you, you only have to look at Lalla's father to explain where some of her eccentricities might stem from and let's not mention her past private life! trouble just seems to follow the girl around like a bad smell!
It certainly doesn't look too good, that someone who is all set to marry one of the local police officers, should keep being discovered with all these dead bodies and involved in crime scenes, that she seems intent on solving single-handedly, much against her lover's wishes, although Caleb seems to have little, if any control, over this impatient and impetuous female, who is obviously addicted to danger, as well as to him.
I got the impression though, that much of Lalla's bravado in front of Caleb, was something of a front which masked her underlying fear of committment, responsibility and getting hurt again. Her reputation had obviously preceeded her return from the city to her home town and she appears intent on shouldering much of the blame for her past mistakes, when really her only crime seems to have been one of being taken in by a hard luck story and having lousy taste in men. She hasn't necessarily chosen the way of life she now has, but on the other hand it is a great `get out of jail free' card, when it comes to hiding away from her own feelings. She can't really believe that Caleb is prepared to accept her for the person she is now and not what has happened to her in the past, not realising that if she pushes him away enough times, he may be lost to her. It is taking Lalla a long time to accept both herself and Caleb for the individuals they are, and that whilst there are no certainties in life, she has to open her heart one more time if she ever hopes to find the happiness and love she yearns for.
I found it astounding that, in a town where you have to pass an interview panel to be able to consider moving into the community, which is then only deemed appropriate when a member of the townsfolk dies to make a space for you, that there are so many unsolved crimes and murders ... and Lalla is at the heart of all the action.
The plot moves at a rattling pace, full of twists and turns, with plenty of excitement and energy. This all comes across in the lively narrative, which despite the underlying humour, is very perceptive and seeds the idea in the readers minds, about some very serious and controversial issues including; organ donation, homelessness, and PTSD.
All of the characters, no matter how small their part, have well defined personalities, which are believable, easy to relate to and become sympathetic with. They are however, without exception, exaggerated and very much larger than life. I have to say that I thought this made discovering the identity of the murderer a little too easy, however, fast changing events caused me to change my mind about the perpetrator several times, only to have my initial suspicions confirmed, but not until right near to the end of the story.
Similarly, although the motive for this string of crimes wasn't discovered until right near the end of the story, it was there right in front of you, if you read closely enough. I guess it is purely a matter of personal taste, just how much of a plot you like to be revealed `up front', but for me, it might have involved a little more guesswork and deduction on my part.
Coming from such a small country as the UK, where their presence is unnecessary, I also found amongst the pages of this book, some valuable insights into the life, work and dangers of being a crop duster. This is something which the author has first-hand knowledge of, coming as she does from a crop dusting family. Very sadly, this same occupation which gave her her start in life, is the one that has caused her most pain, with the death of her son in a tragic crop dusting accident. That she shares even the smallest insight into this necessary, yet dangerous job, is a tribute to her tenacity and attention to detail, all helping to make the reality of Lalla's situation so much more poignant.