Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Crime: Antiques Flee Market: a Trash 'n' Treasures Mystery by Barbara Allan (Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins)

Following her divorce, Brandy Borne moved back in with her mother, Vivian, in her hometown of Serenity. Much to her chagrin, the first thing they did together was attend a mother-daughter meeting of the local Red Hat Club. (Mystery readers all, the local branch has been named The Red-Hatted League.) Vivian couldn't go with Brandy's much-older sister Peggy Sue (they were both named after popular songs of their day) because Peggy Sue was already a member.

Before her arrival, Peg informed Brandy that Vivian sold off most of her prized possessions to an antique dealer while on a "drug holiday" from her bipolar meds. When the antique dealer was found dead — and both Brandy and Vivian admitted to running over the body in their car — it was up to the Borne girls to sift through the other suspects (the dealer was known for taking advantage of citizens) and find the real killer. This story was told in the first "Trash 'n' Treasures" book, Antiques Roadkill.

Since then, they've become amateur sleuths of a sort, investigating murders in their formerly quiet little Midwestern hometown and generally causing havoc of one sort or another while getting in the way of genuine police investigation. The second book in the series, Antiques Maul, is Halloween-themed. It concerns Brandy's trying to keep Vivian out of trouble by opening a booth at the local antiques mall, then finding a woman dead, presumably by her pit bull.

The third book in the series is Antiques Flee Market. Now it's Christmastime, and a former "conquest" of Vivian's (a "mercy mission" during wartime) has been found dead in his nursing-home bed.

Along for the search this time is the victim's British, Goth granddaughter, Chaz, an ex-con with less than savory friends and a delightfully Cockney way of speaking. Meanwhile, Brandy is troubled by an anonymous note that suggests Vivian is not her real mother, and Vivian is excited by news that she is no longer bipolar but merely schizo-affective (which is actually bipolar with psychotic tendencies).

Antiques Flee Market shows a marked improvement over the first book in the series, which I was actually unable to finish (I skipped the followup). The prose here is smoother, with very little sign of one author taking over for the other. The Collinses work well together as "Barbara Allan," and even the humor — which definitely felt inserted into Antiques Roadkill — is much more seamlessly integrated, making for a genuinely funny read (as opposed to simply a joke-filled one).

Fans of co-author Max Allan Collins will appreciate a couple of touches that must have come from him: namely a Mike Hammer reference and the fact that the antique this time around is a rare edition of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the "sleuth" Collins used for his Disaster series book The Pearl Harbor Murders). But all in all, "Barbara Allan" is really coming into her own, and the Trash 'n' Treasures series has to be the quirkiest cozy series on the market.

In fact, in many ways, the Collinses seem to be turning the classic tropes of the cozy subgenre on their ear. After all, the Bornes aren't independently wealthy; their dog is diabetic, blind, and named after raw fish; they're highly dependent on psychiatric medications just for their daily functioning (with disastrously funny results if, for example, they get their pill boxes confused); and their antiques are solely low-rent, flea-market fare (Mother is not averse to Dumpster diving) that clearly falls under the heading of the series' inspiration, the adage "One man's trash is another man's treasure."

In short, unlike most escapist fiction protagonists, the Bornes do not have a life to which it is likely the reader will aspire (except perhaps for those readers who should be, but aren't already, on psych meds). It more closely resembles horror fiction in that the events make you feel better about your own life.

Of course, I could be off on my facts a bit there, given that I wouldn't even have heard of this series if it weren't co-written by one of my favorite authors. But Antiques Flee Market actually turned out to be quite a fun read. Each chapter ends with an (often tongue-in-cheek) antique-buying tip, and the couple have a delightfully wicked sense of humor (dig that soap-opera-derived cliffhanger ending!). I'm already looking forward to reading the fourth book in the series, Antiques Bizarre.


David Cranmer said...

I'm sure these are beyond superb. There is absolutely nothing that Barbara and Max touch that doesn't turn to gold. Talented and a half doesn't even begin to explain it.

Laurie Powers said...

I didn't even know that this series existed. And I'm an antiques and flea market junkie. Definitely on the list now!

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