Sunday, June 6, 2010

Grace Under Pressure

Grace Under Pressure
Author: Julie Hyzy
Berkley, 2010
310 pages

Julie Hyzy is the author of the mystery series about the White House Chef (e.g., State of the Onion, Hail to the Chef, and Eggsecutive Orders), and she's taking a daring detour with Grace Under Pressure, the first in a new series called Manor House Mysteries. Instead of a chef amateur sleuth who shares recipes, we have a young executive-type named Grace Wheaton who works in the Marshfield Manor, a place that reminds me of the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina. Part hotel/resort and part museum, it's also the home of Bennett Marshfield, sole remaining member of the Marshfield family. Grace grew up nearby, and has fond memories of childhood visits, even though her own family eventually moved away. Now she's back in town and part of a new crew that's been hired to bring Marshfield Manor into the twenty-first century.

The story begins with a disturbance in the Tea Room, which as it turns out, was merely a diversion from the real crime: Grace's boss, long-time employee and personal friend of Bennett Marshfield, is shot and killed by a mysterious intruder. Grace must step into a leadership role so that the manor can continue with "business as usual" during the ensuing police investigation, while also mourning this loss and dealing with the fear of a murderer still on the loose. Immediately, Grace faces obstacles, including a gossipy administrative assistant who seems hell-bent on seeing Grace fail, and an increasingly annoying private detective.

Grace faces additional problems at home. The old house she inherited from her parents has not been taken care of over the years, and repairs cost a lot of money. Grace had to take in some housemates to help makes ends meet. Partners Scott and Bruce run an emerging wine business and provide a good support system as well as some comic relief for Grace. There's also an underlying story about the shaky relationship between Grace and her sister, Liza, that leaves room for growth in future books.

The mystery was a good one involving a Ponzi scheme, a scam artist, and other interesting elements. The identify of the murderer wasn't obvious to me until almost the end. As is the case with the White House Chef series, Hyzy tells a good story, and there are a couple of nail-biting moments. But the strength of Grace Under Pressure to me is Grace herself. She's a strong young woman with good leadership skills and lots of potential. Yet she also has a lot of heart . . . and grace.