In my experience, mystery novels have to cross a couple of thresholds on their way to being a good read. First of all - is there a degree of skill in crafting the book? Mystery writing seems to be particularly captivating to a certain kind of aspiring author because it seems like there are thousands of them out there, all trying their hand at it. This means there are, to be blunt, a lot of badly-written mysteries in the world, overlain with an additional layer of truly mediocre ones. It is refreshing to be able to report that Connie Di Marco knows what she's doing. Her fourth entry in the "Zodiac Mystery" series, Serpent's Doom lets you read comfortably, never derailing your enjoyment with a strangely constructed sentence or meandering paragraph. To borrow a phrase, it goes down smooth.
Satisfied that the book is well written in the general sense, we move to the second threshold: is the mystery itself well done and interesting? Well... yes, yes it is. I know from my friends that tastes vary wildly when it comes to mysteries and thrillers, but Serpent's Doom does a nice job of creating a diverse set of stories and then weaving them in and out of each other. I will say that it seems to be de rigeur in these novels to make initial stories seem as far apart as possible and then show how they are all related, kind of like a party game (Six Degrees of Murder?). Somewhere an author is coming up with the novel twist of story B actually having nothing to do with story A. I digress. Di Marco is deft in her weaving of these stories, bringing them all together and even leavening the whole enterprise with backstory on our main character that deepens the main narrative rather than derailing it.
So what is this book doing with a review on Facing North? Our protagonist, Julia Bonatti, is a professional astrologer living in San Francisco. While I am *not* a professional astrologer, I am at least facile enough the material to say that the author knows what she's talking about in sections discussing astrology and uses this knowledge to give her character insight into the world around her via her trade. No, she doesn't look to the stars before pointing a finger to exclaim "Mars in the 4th house, Charlie is the murderer!" Instead, insights from her craft open trails of thought for her to explore that might otherwise have been missed completely. Readings she performs, particularly "bi-wheels" for example with a husband and wife, are illuminating plot points but don't instantly reveal dark secrets. I found it to be an appropriate use of astrology to further the story rather than an extraneous addition simply to add some mysticism to an otherwise-normal story.
It is worth pointing out that this is book 4 in the Zodiac Mysteries series and I did not read the previous installments. Like most genre fiction, Di Marco on-boards the reader smoothly enough, finding more-or-less organic ways to inform the reader of things they have missed if it is pertinent, but some people are more sensitive to this than others (I'm actually incredibly finicky about this; if I catch a whiff of something included in a book that is inscrutable, only to find out later that it made perfect sense if only you'd read something else, I develop a rash.) That said, Serpent's Doom is an enjoyable read on its own; I was unfamiliar with them prior to this review, but I'm glad I was exposed to it and I'm looking forward to finding the others in the series.
~review by Wanderer
Author: Connie Di Marco
Suspense Publishing, 2022
pp. 291, $15.95