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by Wendy Howell Mills

Oak Tree Press, 2001
ISBN: 1-892-34315-0

Reviewed by Pamela White

The mystery aficionado's introduction to Wendy Howell Mills is a smashing success. In her first novel, CALLIE AND THE DEALER AND A DOG NAMED JAKE, Mills deftly mixes murder, mystery and a hurricane into a suspenseful tale peopled with real-life folks and situations, as well as a suspicious cat and abandoned dog thrown in for ambiance.

Callie McKinley, our heroine, is the restaurant manager of a large hotel in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Outer Banks are a playground for the well-heeled and a somewhat crackpot sanctuary for the year-round residents. Callie's unknown past and secret wounds only make her fit in with the cooks, chefs and bartenders who may have something more sinister to hide.

Mills takes a grand risk by opening her book (and I'm not giving anything away you won't read for yourself in the first three pages) with Callie's discovery of a dead body in the freezer while a tropical storm rages around the evacuated hotel.

We time-travel back nine days with the start of the next chapter, where the fun, for the reader anyway, begins. Does this gambit work? Stupendously. With wit and great skill, Mills grabs the reader and doesn't let go until the storm, and mystery, is over.

In the interim we find our dauntless heroine discovering files belonging to her predecessor. His concerns about shrinking inventory piques her interest, but it isn't until Callie starts looking into the diminishing supplies that she realizes it isn't simply sloppy paperwork. Bad shrimp, unauthorized copies of keys, mysterious numbers penciled on manila file folders, an almost deadly Fourth of July celebration, a bedraggled, homeless pup and, of course, the dead body in the freezer lead Callie to suspect most of her co-workers, until....

Until you uncover the culprit yourself while indulging in Mills' sharply-plotted and skillfully written premiere novel.

Mills shows talent in creating characters you'd expect to meet next door, none of whom should be murderers, and all of whom could be murderers under the right circumstances. Her scene settings ring true, especially the insanity of a busy restaurant kitchen. This coastal asylum with knives, toques blanches and tongs is written with great expertise since the author is, when she switches hats, a restaurant manager in an Outer Banks resort herself.

Callie McKinley is an amateur sleuth worth befriending. She has the courage to shake off a depression and leave behind a destroyed marriage and a mysterious past to start fresh in a world of unexpected freedom and acceptance.

Mills is a mystery author worth cultivating. She has the talent to weave a dozen quizzical characters (plus the dog), a resort filled with demanding tourists, a coastal storm, bad seafood, restaurant kitchen life, and the launching pad location of the Wright brothers' dream into a mystery I couldn't put down.

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