Monday, June 14, 2004

Packing Mrs. Phipps: A Jo Jacuzzo Mystery

Anne Seale
Alyson Books
1555838375, $13.95

This first novel from Anne Seale introduces readers to a new lesbian mystery series. Jo Jacuzzo, a 27-year-old, shy, intelligent (if not the most educated), softhearted butch finds herself thrown into a series of unexpected, complicated, and even life-threatening events. Jo's first person narrative is often amusing and her view of the world has a sweet, almost childlike innocence that is charming without being saccharine. While touchingly neurotic and somewhat naive, Jo is also loyal and a bit stubborn with a definite moral core.
Until the last few weeks, Jo has worked as a homecare-nursing aide. However, an accusation and complaint from the family of one of her clients has resulted in unemployment for Jo.

Although she still lives with her mother and her mother's partner, Rose, Jo has been paying her part of the household expenses for years and her unemployment is a hardship for all. Soon her mother pushes Jo to accept a temporary job. That "errand" is to go to Tampa, Florida, and help pack up the snowbird mother of a friend for her summer return to Buffalo.

Of this mother-daughter talk, Jo comments, "I knew I was in for a deep discussion. [Mom]'d said, "So, Jo" when explaining what Kotex was for and before telling me that Daddy had left us, among other depressing things. (Having Daddy leave was depressing only because we didn't leave him first.)" (9)

The road trip begins safely enough. Jo stops to visit her Uncle Dom in Cincinnati to help him with some chores. She gets the low-down on him from the neighborhood kids including, "The best bit, however, was that he pushed an evangelist off his porch last year and had to do community service. That's my family, heathenish to a fault." (15)

When Jo's beloved Toyota truck has a break down in rural Georgia, she finds herself accepting a detour to Arizona to help the beautiful if enigmatic heiress, Charity Redmun, drive a motor home across country. The complications from here on are exponential.

Packing Mrs. Phipps is a very funny novel and Jo's observations are wonderfully droll at times. For example, this exchange with a woman who befriends Jo: "I guess people name their kids Faith and Hope, so why not [Charity]? Sonny and Cher even named their daughter Chastity. How'd you like to go though life with a name like that? What guy would want to have sex with a girl called Chastity?" [Jo's response] "I'm guessing that doesn't bother her too much." (184)

The mystery's plot has several unexpected twists, not the least of which is Jo deciding to go undercover to try to find a killer, and dressing as a high femme named "Sheridan" to infiltrate a right-wing militia group near the Mexican Border. Few things are quite as they appear to be in this suspenseful little tale. There are one or two incongruencies uncaught in the editing process -- like the change of a meeting time from afternoon to morning within three pages and without the implied change of that time. -- Nevertheless, Jo Jacuzzo is one of most charming reluctant detectives since Sarah Dreher's Stoner McTavish series. This entertaining and promising first novel will have this reader looking for Jo's future adventures.
-MJ Lowe

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