Shady Hollow: A Murder Mystery, by Juneau Black – Book Review by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

titleShady Hollow: A Murder Mystery, by Juneau Black.
Philadelphia, PA, Hammer & Birch, October 2015, paperback $12.95 ([1] + 197 [+1] pages), Kindle $4.99.

This is a stereotypical murder mystery except for the funny animal cast. Shady Hollow is a small forest animal town where everybody knows everybody else. They’re all friendly, except maybe for grumpy toad Otto Stumpf.  But he’s considered cranky but lovable – until the morning that he’s found floating face down in the mill pond with a knife in his back.

Almost all the reviews call Shady Hollow “a Murder, She Wrote with animals”. The book begins with a Cast of Characters:

Otto Stumpf: The grouchy, taciturn toad of Shady Hollow. Not many folk admit to liking Otto. The better question is who hates him.

Vera Vixen: This cunning, foxy reporter has a nose for trouble and a desire to find out the truth. Can she trust anyone around her?

BW Stone: The cigar-chomping skunk of an editor of the Shady Hollow Herald. BW (“Everything in black and white!”) loves a good headline. Would he kill to create one?” (p. 1)

The Cast goes on to profile thirteen others such as the lazy bear police chief, his bear deputy who does all the work, the hummingbird town gossip, the moose coffee shop owner, the beaver industrialist, and the raccoon small-time thief. Each is described suspiciously. As the popular coffee-shop proprietor, “If gossip is spoken, Joe has heard it. Maybe he heard too much.” As Vera investigates, everyone turns out to have a secret that he or she would rather keep hidden. But are any of the secrets serious enough to lead to murder? And how would a recluse like Otto have learned them?

Shady Hollow is developed leisurely at first, as befits a small town where “nothing ever happens”.

“For instance, today’s headline profiles the spelling bee winner. Ashley Chitters (mouse, eight years of age), proudly wearing the bright bee-shaped medal on a long ribbon around her neck. She has triumphed for the running, spelling ‘c-o-n-t-u-m-a-c-i-o-u-s’ with no hesitation whatsoever, to great applause. Her rival – a stoat who ironically was somewhat contumacious – tried to put an ‘i’ in lachrymose, to his detriment. Next to the article on the spelling bee queen is a recipe for peach cobbler from the rabbits of Cold Clay Orchards. The accompanying illustration makes the mouth water.

Such is the news in Shady Hollow.

Other things happen, of course. There is love and hate, deceit and betrayal. There is loyalty and disappointment, heroism and villainy, all of a small order. But these things are for the most part private, and secret. They take place behind closed doors, or underground in dens, or among the branches that shade the town so well. You do not see them aired about in the peaceful world of Shady Hollow.

But very soon, you will.” (pgs. 5-6)

For most of the residents of Shady Hollow, the murder is shockingly impossible to believe. They treat it almost as though it was a fatal accident, just very bad luck for Otto. For a few, it’s an opportunity.

“If the deputy remembered that he worked under Chief Meade, he didn’t seem to care. He could collect evidence, take pictures, and contact the Peaceful Hollow Funeral Home on Yew Street to collect Otto’s body before the Chief even rolled out of bed. He liked his job, and knew that he was good at it. It bothered him that he did most of the work and his boss took most of the credit, but it seemed petty to complain. After all, who really cared which bear solved the case of the stolen ice sculpture?

But now, he felt differently. Perhaps this tragedy would also be a stepping stone. Despite the situation, he felt some excitement in the pit of his stomach: there had never been a murder in Shady Hollow before.” (p. 17)

Until a second, public murder attempt is made. Then all Shady Hollow panics. Is there a serial killer? Is anyone safe? Is there a connection between the toad and the would-be second victim? Will there be more attempts? Will the police resist pressure to throw somebody, anybody into jail to create a false illusion of having solved the crimes? Can Vera Vixen continue to investigate without making herself a target of the killer?

“Vera sniffed loudly, but then she recovered. ‘We have got to catch this killer,’ she declared, peering into the mirror. ‘Bandages are not a good look for me, and I am starting to take things personally.’” (p. 122)

The animal natures of the cast are used to a minor extent. Birds like Lenore Lee, the raven bookstore owner, and Prof. Ambrosius Heidegger, the owl philosopher, can fly above the ground-based animals and travel in birds-eye routes, taking less time than those who have to travel by roads.

In an About the Author, Juneau Black is admitted to be the pen name of two mystery fans, Jocelyn Koehler and Sharon Nagel. The two are a bookseller and a former bookseller who have taken pains to make Shady Hollow an especially attractive example of book design, such as the ornate cover by James T. Egan. They intend this to be the first of a series. The second book, Cold Clay: A Shady Hollow Mystery, is already under way.


– Fred Patten