I have a theory about women and ghosts. It's safe to have a female amateur sleuth fall for the ghost of a good-looking man. Readers can fall for him, too, but the author doesn't have to worry about the reader getting frustrated when the couple doesn't get together. I can think of some long-running mystery series that I've given up on reading because the woman can't make up her mind who she really loves. That isn't a problem in a series with a ghost. The heroine knows who she really loves. She just can't have him. It's an important element in a number of cozy mysteries featuring ghosts. In fact, that issue is central to some of my favorite series. Alice Kimberly's Haunted Bookshop series features a bookstore owner and the ghost of a private detective that haunted the bookshop where he died. Sharon Pape's Portrait of Crime series brings together a police sketch artist turned private investigator and the ghost of a Federal Marshal. In Paige Shelton's Country Cooking School mysteries, Betts Winston is haunted by the memory of Jerome Cowbender. J.J. Cook's outstanding Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade mysteries are in the same vein. Perhaps the latest one, Playing with Fire, reminds me the most of Alice Kimberly's books because we can see the story from both Fire Chief Stella Griffin's point of view, and, once in a while when he's thinking of her, the late fire chief's point of view. Former Fire Chief Eric Gamlyn is a ghost, and the man who built the cabin where Stella now lives. Everyone in town knows his ghost haunts the cabin, but only Stella can see and talk to him.
If this book review seems a little unusual, it is. I have to interest you in reading these books without giving away too much. Saying that, if you're interested in reading the series, and have not yet read the first book, That Old Flame of Mine, I'd suggest you stop reading the review at this point. Everything about Playing with Fire is a spoiler if you haven't yet read the first book. Fire Chief Stella Griffin's reason for staying in Sweet Pepper, Tennessee after her contract is up as fire chief is a spoiler. So, please. Stop now if you want to read the series, and have not yet read the first book.
So, I warned you. Playing with Fire picks up some months after That Old Flame of Mine ended. Stella's three-month contract ended, but she's staying on, determined to find the killer of former chief Eric Gamlyn. Everyone thought Eric had died as a hero, saving one of his volunteer firemen in a fire at a silo. But, when Eric's body was found in the wall of the firehouse, they learned he'd actually been murdered. Eric himself can't remember what happened after he went into the burning building and sent Ricky out with his mask. But, Stella doesn't want to leave him alone to brood, so she's determined to poke around and ask questions. How long can she stay, though, while her job is waiting for her back in Chicago?
There's even more pressure for Stella to find the killer when her parents show up with her cheating ex-boyfriend in tow. They want Stella to make a decision. Is she going to stay in Sweet Pepper as Fire Chief of the volunteer fire department she trained, or return to her life in Chicago where her parents and friends live, and she has a job as a fire captain? For Stella, those questions must wait. She's more determined to find Eric's killer. And, when a retired deputy tells her his story of the fire the day Eric died, and then he's killed as he tries to leave Sweet Pepper, Stella knows there's someone in town who doesn't want the truth to come out.
Cook's second Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade mystery is as engrossing as That Old Flame of Mine. A female fire chief is an interesting amateur sleuth because she has to be a strong woman who fought her way in a man's field. Now, Stella has to fight for answers. There's a strong back-up cast of characters, including Eric. Some are willing to help her in her search. Others smolder with resentment that she's in her position, and that she's rekindled old stories. They all come together in a strong series that demonstrates the heated issues that can ignite in a small town.
J.J. Cook is a master at cliffhangers. Even though Stella finds some answers, there are still burning questions left at the end of Playing with Fire. She's a newcomer to Sweet Pepper, not familiar with the politics and the political games. Stella and Eric both made enemies. She may have uncovered a killer, but that doesn't mean she really knows the truth. There are indications that someone is still playing fast and loose with the fire department, and past developments. And, if anyone understands, Fire Chief Stella Griffin should know, "Where there's smoke, there's fire."
J.J. Cook's website is www.jjcook.net
Playing with Fire by J.J. Cook. Berkley Prime Crime. 2013. ISBN 9780425252451 (paperback), 295p.
FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.