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Mystery of the month
The August Tip of the Ice Pick award goes to Perri O'Shaughnessy for the stylish California thriller Presumption of Death. "Perri" is the pen name for two O'Shaughnessy sisters, Pamela and Mary; besides being an amalgam of their given names, it is an unabashed homage to one of the all-time iconic suspense heroes, Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason. Presumption of Death features attorney Nina Reilly, on leave from her Lake Tahoe practice and chilling out with her private investigator boyfriend in the exclusive beach enclave of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Serenity is not Nina's strong suit, and she quickly becomes embroiled in the investigation of an arson murder in which Wish Whitefeather, the son of an old friend, is the principal suspect. The evidence is damning: Wish was seen going into the forest just before the fire broke out, and the deceased victim sports a depression in his skull which matches the bloodied edge of Wish's heavy camera. His alibi is thin at best, but he is likable enough, and Nina believes his story. She agrees to represent him at the preliminary hearing. Her investigation bears fruit early on. It seems that several others had both motive and opportunity to commit a bit of well-timed arson: the homeowners whose quiet neighborhood was in the sights of unscrupulous developers; the strange and violent hippie-turned-mountain man; the eccentric "cat lady," fiercely dedicated to her feral brood. As is the case with the previous eight Nina Reilly novels, the protagonists are well-rounded and engaging, the legal issues are clarified for the layman, and the pace is relentless. Presumption of Death virtually demands to be read in one sitting.