Friday, March 5, 2010

Antiques Bizarre: 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. Since then, the Borne girls have 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. (For a more thorough history, read my review of Antiques Flee Market, the third book in the series.)

Antiques Bizarre is the fourth in this increasingly entertaining series by married collaborators Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins writing under the pseudonym "Barbara Allan." The action picks up a few months after the events of Antiques Flee Market.

Brandy is now three months pregnant with the surrogate child of her best friend Tina (who is unable to bear due to cervical cancer) and experiencing a remarkable bout of morning sickness when she needs to drive Vivian to an appointment with Madam Petrova. Vivian plans to ask Nastasya to donate her Fabergé egg (the last one ever made) to be auctioned at an upcoming charity antiques bazaar with the proceeds going to local flood victims. (As a side of "friendly" competition, the group who raises the most money will be profiled in a regional magazine.)

By the end of the auction, both the owner and the high bidder will be dead, dozens of other poisoned, and the egg missing. But at least Vivian's team will be the ones in the magazine, and isn't that what's really important? In any case, given Brandy's state, she intends to stay away from any of her mother's attempts to solve the murders — though she does hesitate to let her "shrewd Nancy Drew–like detective's mind" lie fallow.

Like the devoted mystery readers they are, they first decide whether to approach the investigation like Agatha Christie or Rex Stout. Vivian eventually gathers all the suspects together like Christie while making surprise pronouncements like Stout, therefore offering the best of both worlds.

Though the authors have chosen the most obvious of motives for their killer — making this the most traditional entry so far in terms of the actual "mystery" — Antiques Bizarre still has a lot going for it. The Collinses work well together as "Barbara Allan." With this, the couple's sixth novel together in total, the division between their individual voices is all but indiscernible. It all comes through in a uniform, shared voice.

The Trash 'n' Treasures books have to be the funniest mystery series going. The humor of Antiques Bizarre comes from Brandy's and Vivian's somewhat skewed points of view. (Brandy's off her Prozac due to being pregnant, and both of them find this an improvement.) This makes for a genuinely funny read, with the authors mining the proceedings for all the humor they can get out of it. The jokes aren't all gems but they come at such a rapid-fire pace that you hardly notice. One could say the Collinses are the Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker of the cozy mystery.

Like the previous books, Antiques Bizarre ends on a soap-opera-inspired cliffhanger that carries the continuing saga of Brandy Borne's parentage into the next book. And each chapter ends with a piece of advice on some aspect of antiquing. "Barbara Allan" has come up with another winner, and I'm already looking forward to their next, currently being written and tentatively titled Antiques Knock-Off.

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