Getting Cozy With Star Charts

Author: Michael Scott Lewis

Do you read your horoscope?  I used to when I was a kid but haven’t in years.  I didn’t really think anyone took astrology Death in the 12th House Coverseriously except those who made money ripping people off while gazing at star charts and crystal balls.  Turns out there are people who actively pursue it as a serious field of study.  Who knew?  I’ll tell you one person who knew – Michael Scott Lewis, astrologer and author of Death in the 12th House: Where Neptune Rules.

Death in the 12th House is the second book in the Starlight Detective Agency Mystery series following main character David Lowell, celebrated astrologer and private detective.  Lowell made a lot of money in the stock market at some point before we enter 12th House and is currently working from his opulent office on cases that interest him or in which he is a requested participant.  He is contacted by NYPD’s Lieutenant Roland after the murder of an aging rock star whose daughter is a famous actress and wants Lowell on the case based on his reputation.  We delve into the worlds of rock and roll, fate and musical finance as Lowell investigates the death of Freddie Finger.

Since this is not the first book in the series, I played a little catch-up with our main character as I moved through the book.  Author Lewis covers the basics about David Lowell’s history and current circumstances with a few mentions of a previous case (one that I assume is the subject of the first book).  It is abundantly clear that Lewis takes his astrology very seriously and his main character is a highly trained, experienced and well equipped expert in the field.  There are copious references to astrological charts and planetary movement throughout the book – detailed and fairly technical but well enough explained for someone unfamiliar with the discipline.

Of considerable interest here is the look into the music business as it adapts to the era of the internet (or doesn’t adapt).  There are explanations of how the money flows within the industry and the difficulties encountered by traditional artists and companies in the face of the digital age.  The New York setting gives ample opportunity for references to past venues and practices that are disappearing as aging musicians struggle to make ends meet in a business that seems to no longer value music at all.

Lewis takes care to add in the requisite quirky peripheral characters, including Lowell’s secretary and driver as well as his psychic computer hacker associate.  These folks are well written, not overly developed but given enough personality to lend some fullness to the story and setting as well as set up future development based on eccentricities, physical attributes and general characteristics that make them good cozy mystery sidekicks.

Main character Lowell is a little troublesome.  First and foremost, Lewis refers to the man as “Lowell” throughout.  Other characters occasionally use his first name, but never is it used in the narration.  David Lowell is already a fairly stiff and formal man with very high regard for himself, his skill and his expertise.  By using his last name only, Lewis distances us further from our main protagonist, the one to whom we should feel the most connected.  Lowell remains aloof and cold to the reader, even when he is supposed to be charming within the story.

We also have the basic issue of a book that uses as its main conceit the serious contemplation of a field of study that many people think is nothing more than a parlor trick.  Lewis does a pretty good job of portraying Lowell as a serious man and astrology as more than horoscopes in the newspaper, but he doesn’t get quite all the way there for this skeptic.  For me, he’s trying too hard – making the whole enterprise into something infallible and using so much technobabble that it feels like he’s reaching in order to justify his character’s profession rather than just writing for an audience that accepts astrology as legitimate (thereby failing to capture the attention of those who might be casually interested and simply enjoy the stories).  He isn’t likely to convert anyone into a staunch follower of the stars through a series of cozy mysteries so he would be better off doing less boasting about the field and more character development.  Addressing skeptics is a good thing, but for me it needs to be toned down a few notches.  It’s a good effort in general, though, and one that those more open to or familiar with the field will surely find fascinating.

Overall, Murder in the 12th House: Where Neptune Rules is definitely going to appeal to astrology buffs and hard core cozy mystery fans.  The end of this second series installment seems to point to more emotional investment from David Lowell, which would be a welcome development, and perhaps with time author Lewis will stop feeling the need to convince the world that astrology is legitimate and focus more on his characters and plots.  This installment provides interesting tidbits about the music industry but needs a more engaging protagonist and less hyperbole about astrology.  3 stars out of 5 for this niche cozy mystery.

— S. Millinocket

Sue Millinocket
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