|Rev Willa Hinshaw
(creator: Lynette Hall Hampton)
|Rev Willa Hinshaw is the newly appointed Associate Minister at First United Methodist Church, Liverpool, North Carolina. She had a BA from the University of Michigan and a Master of Divinity from Emory, and had subsequently been an associate minister in a 500-member Church in Charlotte for three years. She is in her late 20's but is still single. She was the middle child of five, and her parents live in South Carolina. She admits that she is "often snappy and said things before I thought them through". It is she who narrates the stories. She frequently mentions hot baths and iced tea, both of which she likes.
Lynette Hall Hampton (who has no intention of telling us her age) grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Her work has varied from being a clerk in a department store to a Human Resource Manager for a large manufacturing company. She now lives in Kernersville in North Carolina, where she is a member of Sedge Garden United Methodist Church. She is divorced, with one daughter and a cat. Her first novel, Jilted by Death (see below), was published in 2004. Before this she had had over 400 articles and short stories published in magazines, and had published 3 children's books. Her non-Willa books include a guide for would-be writers, a book of Bible puzzles and games, and a novel.
Jilted by Death (2004)
She is nothing if not enthusiastic: "Thrilled was the only word I could think of to describe what I'd felt when I was appointed to the new position. Not only was I excited by the fact that the church had almost a thousand members, but I was eager to serve with the Reverend Philip Galloway. His reputation was well-known in the conference, and the one time I had heard him speak, I sat spellbound. I still marveled at the fact that I was now going to reap the benefits of his knowledge as I watched him minister to his flock."
So when he asks her to hurry over to the church because of a situation that "calls for a woman's touch", she explains: "Ignoring the dresses on the bed, I turned to the closet and jerked out the light blue cotton frock with a white lace collar. It slipped over my head, and because there were no buttons or zippers in the Princess design, I was dressed. I didn't even have to change the white hose and white wedge-heeled sandals.They complemented the dress." So she was equally ready for the parishioner's wedding to which she had previously been invited.
But she learns from Philip that the wedding is off because the bride-to-be, Lee Ann Poole, had left her parents a note saying that she has eloped with an old boyfriend, Justin Swanson, so jilting Claude Renigar, "one of Liverpool's most up-and-coming attorneys".
Then Willa gets a phone call from the missing Lee Ann Poole asking for her help, and it is not long before she is hot on the trail, with the help of ex-police chief Ed Walsh, who, although he had retired from the force a couple of years before, still seems to have the freedom to virtually take over the case, There's a ransom note, threatening phone calls from somebody with a sinister "deep voice", break-ins, and real and attempted murders, as well as the eccentric behaviour of her mother's sister, Aunt Lila, to deal with: "Her bleached hair was all teased, and it fluffed around her face. She was wearing a bright flowered top with neon green pants. Her eye shadow matched the pants, and her bright red lips matched nothing. Her fingernails, once painted a deep pink, were chipped and now only half polished. The toenails sported an orange polish and seemed to be more recently done. She had on yellow thong sandals. The big straw bag she carried had a bright yellow rose painted on the front."
This is amusing (although Lila's subsequent entanglent with a particularly unpleasant suitor does not seem strictly relevant to the plot), as are such character names as Gaylord and Portia Swanson.The author obviously enjoys herself describing clothes, food, and places like Kernersville where she herself lives. She has much less to say about Willa's religious beliefs or experiences than about her admiration for Trent Freeman, the local Baptist minister: "I'd never seen a man with eyes as blue and as clear. Well, maybe Paul Newman, but that was only in the movies.". He sounds like a character who has wandered in from a romantic novel, as when a neighbor asks Willa if she minds if a friend of his drops by. Willa describes how "I stopped short as I reached the door leading back into the living room. Standing there, untying his necktie, was Trent Freeman." End of chapter!
It's a cozy, gossipy sort of book although the conversations can sound rather stilted as when Willa says, "Death is so final, it makes us stop and ponder our own lives." Or "I know we have made strides in some areas of our lives, but there are things I wish we could reclaim from the past. Safety, number one."
And it does not sound very convincing when she has to tell Reba that Claude, to whom she had once been very close, had been murdered. Reba "closed her eyes. 'How?'
Willa worries that "It's as if someone is anticipating our every move". Her new close friend Jill agrees, "It is all very confusing. Just between you and me, I thought Claude had more to do with Lee Ann's disappearance than anyone knew. Then he popped up dead, and I guess I was wrong about that."
What with all the increasingly heavy hints, It is surprisingly easy to identify the murderer long before Willa does. By then her own life is in great danger. Or would be if is this wasn't one of those books in which the murderer goes on at inordinate length gloating over chained-up prisoners and explaining how it was all done. It makes rather a silly ending.
The author explains on her website that "I'm a character person. When you read my books, you'll find them character driven. Which means, I only vaguely know where my book is going when I start. I know how I'm going to start it and how it might or might not end, but the middle I make up as I go." Yes, that's what it reads like. A stronger plot and more realistic dialogue might have made all the difference.
Echoes of Mercy (2007 )
Elva Kingfield explains to Willa that, apart from Dennis, a nephew in Atlanta, her few other relations "only come around when they think I'm going to die. They want to know if they're mentioned in the will." And her old housekeeper and friend Bernice does not trust even Dennis. Then the old lady is horrified to see what seems to be the ghost of her husband and both she and Bernice suffer serious "accidents". So plenty happens, including a murder, and it is a real improvement on the first book.
The romance between Willa and the local Baptist minister Trent Freeman continues to blossom, and they have their first passionate kiss. "There was no doubt that there was a deep attraction between us and we both felt the magic when we were together." But Willa is worried that he is a Methodist and most Methodists did not then recognize women priests, "but so far we'd managed to skirt the issues that would divide us". But meanwhile she invites him to breakfast, and we get a long and detailed account of exactly what she cooks for him, ending with: "From the freezer, I took a carton of frozen orange juice, mixed it and filled two glasses. I broke the four eggs in a bowl, added a little milk, salt and paper then whipped them until they were well mixed. All the time I was humming one of my favourite hymns - 'Go Tell It on the Mountain.' " This is not really all that is relevant to the plot. Nor is the later plug for a real Kernersville restaurant, Amalfi's, when Willa says, "I've been there a few times and it really is good .... The friendly staff greeted us as if we were their favorite customers .... They treat all their customers this way."
Some of the dialogue can still sound naive as when Willa says, "It's strange, Trent. A bomb going off in the graveyard like that. I just don't understand it." And it is typical of the author that before Willa can get down to explaining to Elva Kingfield how her husband's tombstone has been blown up, she has to be offered tea "and a crystal plate of sugarcoated teacakes. They looked delicious. Mrs Kingfield served tea in fragile china cups, which were trimmed in pink roses. She insisted I take a cookie. She didn't have to work hard to persuade me. I bit into it and found it was as tasty as it looked."
The senior minister of the church, Rev Philip Galloway, has a wife, Myra, suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, and is at the point of putting her into a home. Alzheimer's is described as "a terrible disease. It's just as hard on the family as it is on the person who has it", if not harder, but Myra seems to be mainly used in this story as someone else whom Willa can help, and before whom the ghost of Leo Kingfield can also appear.
Willa gets deeply involved in fighting off Mrs Kingfield's scheming relatives. She does not seem to have much church work to do beyond writing the Christmas play for children and talking to them at the Sunday service. But, as in the previous book, she ends up tied and apparently helpless, a murderer's prisoner. But this time things do not turn out in a predictable way, and it makes quite an exciting finish, even if it still ends with the murderer having to explain everything to us.
Willa is not really much of a detective as she totally fails to deduce the murderer's identity, but the book certainly has its entertaining moments.
|The first Willa Hinshaw book was published by Silver Dagger, a consortium of writers specialising in "southern mysteries".|
|The second book in the series was self-published.|