The First in a Promising Series

Author: Denise Swanson

Dani’s life is one disaster after another. Her too-good-to-be-true boyfriend turned out to be engaged to another woman. Her office job forced her to participate in something that still makes her uncomfortable and guilty; something that handy little NDA keeps her from ever talking about. Under this cloud of suspicion and betrayal, a chance windfall starts to turn everything around. Dani has inherited a beautiful old house – a manor really – and enough money to leave the rat race behind and indulge in her true passion: cooking. Despite her father’s rampant disapproval, Dani chooses to start over and open a chef-to-go catering firm, serving packed lunches to nearby college kids and catering the occasional event. She even takes on new roommates, some of those same college students. Everything is looking up until her first swanky event nose dives with the death of the host – a death the police are linking to Dani.

With her new business threatened, Dani and her roommates start to look into the life of the late Regina Bourne – the wealthy socialite known for her lavish parties and backbiting ways. One of Dani’s roommates even has an uncle (Spencer) who is a retired police detective, and despite his concerns he is slowly being drawn not only into the case but into Dani’s life.

Tart of Darkness is a promising start to a new series. It has all the best elements of cozy mystery combined with delectable food descriptions and even a smattering of romance. The sudden, convenient inheritance of a Victorian mansion, especially at a low point in Dani’s life, is a bit serendipitous as is her guardianship/friendship with the three teenage girls who function as both her cheer squad and backup detectives, but as the novel finds its footing and author Denise Swanson creates an atmosphere and distinctive voice readers start to forgive the obvious set-up and get into the story. And what a story it is!

Regina is no innocent victim. It seems like everyone had a reason to off the spoiled little rich girl, from her best friend to her boyfriend. When a new creepy detective joins the mix, and seeks to pin the crime on one of the girls and Dani, the story stutters a bit with the overly forceful, break-in-your-house-and-accuse-you tough cop character, but by this time we’re bought into the story and willing to forgive the occasional plot props. It’s that good and the characters have grown that much. We want to follow them into this world, want to find out just what Regina was up to and who she finally pushed too far, and we want to stay in this new mansion with its upstart business owner and cheerful, if haphazard, students.

As the story grows Swanson throws a second villain into the mix, which is an interesting choice that really helps invest us in the character of Dani while drawing Spencer into the story beyond just the investigative angle of helping out his now implicated niece. Dani’s creepy ex has his own axe to grind, and when he shows up with goons and threats it seems that Dani’s brief spate of good luck is coming to an abrupt and painful conclusion. But there is a lot more going on below the surface.

By the time the full horror of who Regina was as a person is revealed and the girls discover the true killer, I knew that this was a series I would be following (heck, I had already downloaded the next book). While not everything was absolutely perfect, the book had already grown beyond its own improbable setup into something that was captivating. I care about these characters, and I can see them growing. Likewise, the mansion itself and the entire Chef-to-Go Enterprise has a strong appeal that is only just beginning.

The mystery itself was well paced with just the right balance between the ongoing character saga and the investigation. The puzzle was well done, and, while I did figure who the real killer was a few chapters before the characters, it all fit nicely and left me wanting to go on further adventures with these people. Highly recommend.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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