Book: Then There Were Nun by Dakota Cassidy (2015)
Age/Genre: Paranormal Fiction, Cozy Mystery
Reading Accoutrements: Comfort food and a crackling fire to read beside, perfect for curling up with a cozy mystery
Content Notes: Murder, Homelessness, Violence, Gang Violence, Mental Illness, Demonic Possession
My love of paranormal mysteries started with a discussion with my mom. We were talking about books we enjoy and I mentioned that, while I love fluffy romance novels that stop my brooding over things going on in my life, I often need a challenge for my brain. I had previously been solving my need for challenge with thrillers by authors like Mary Higgins Clark, but they tended to make me more broody. That was when Mom handed me my first paranormal mystery romance – a book by Heather Graham, who I did an author spotlight on in 2018.
Then There Were Nun was recommended to me by BookBub and, while I have been trying (and failing miserably) to avoid starting a new series, I couldn’t help myself. The concept of this book is too funny: a sometimes-demon-possessed ex-nun and her recently-escaped-from-Hell demon sidekick are opening a tattoo parlor in Portland, Oregon. Unfortunately, their plans are delayed because their landlord is murdered.
Trixie Lavender was raised in a conservative home in the Pacific Northwest. As a teenager, she got into trouble with drugs and boys, and so was sent to live in a convent in the hopes that she would find a healthier path. Trixie chose to become a nun when she came of age and was living contentedly in the convent until “the incident.” This book does not elaborate too much on the incident that caused Trixie Lavender to be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church, but we know it involved a demonic possession and some relatively mortifying behavior that Trixie doesn’t remember exhibiting at all.
Trixie had met Coop – a demonic recent-escapee from Hell who happens to be a very talented tattoo artist – before the incident, but we don’t know much about how their friendship developed. When Trixie was kicked out of the convent, Coop and her pet owl (another demon/escapee from Hell named Quigley Livingston) joined Trixie and came up with a plan. Coop has a talent for creating incredible tattoos, and since Trixie is a sketch artist with talent of her own, the two decided to open a tattoo parlor together.
These two characters made their debut in another of Cassidy’s cozy mystery series about a murder-mystery-solving witch, when the landlord of their tattoo parlor in a small coastal town in Washington was murdered and Coop was arrested. The witch solved the murder mystery, clearing Coop’s name, but the new landlord refused to rent the building to the women. After that fiasco, Trixie, Coop, and Quigley moved to Portland to start again. They found the perfect place in a quaint (and completely fictional) part of Portland called Cobbler’s Cove, and on day one of renovation, they found their landlord murdered. That’s some seriously bad luck…I wouldn’t want to be their next landlord!
Cassidy lives in Oregon; she is a transplant from New York. Her portrayal of Portland is full of the enthusiasm she has for her adopted homeland. She mentions a lot of the restaurants that are popular with newcomers to Portland because of their media coverage, tourism hot-spots like Powell’s Books, and the abundance of unique personalities you can meet in Portland. She also talks about aspects of Portland that tourists tend to overlook, such as the gorgeous bridges and parks (which probably go overlooked because the weather is rarely good enough to enjoy them). The setting of this book could have been any cozy mystery town, but Portland adds a pleasant and familiar twist.
Trixie and Coop are running low on funds and need to get their tattoo parlor up and running as quickly as possible, but their space is now a crime scene. In order to get back into the tattoo parlor as quickly as possible, they launch their own investigation into the murder. While the two investigate, they make friends with other business owners in their neighborhood. The owner of the diner down the street from their tattoo parlor offers to help paint once they can get back into the space. A retired tattoo-artist-to-the-stars (who moved to Oregon from California) makes a deal with them to rent space in their tattoo parlor when it opens. The man who runs the homeless shelter next door offers to store their inventory until they can get back into their building. Several of the local homeless community provide information that helps progress their investigation.
Speaking of the man who runs the homeless shelter! He is one heck of a character – and potential love interest for Trixie somewhere down the road. In fact, I think we get more of his backstory than we do Trixie’s or Coop’s in this book. Cross Higglesworth (aka Higgs) was an undercover cop in Minneapolis before he quit and moved to Portland to run a homeless shelter. He’s handsome, charming, and brings investigative know-how to the mystery-solving tattoo artists just when they need it most.
One thing that bothered me was the fact that Coop often refers to Trixie as “Sister Trixie Lavender,” which indicates that Trixie did not change her name when she became a nun. I was surprised because choosing a religious name is a tradition in the Catholic church, which helps to reaffirm a transition into a new place in life. Considering her life story, Trixie would have been encouraged to select a religious name as a symbol that she was moving on from the sins of her past into a life with God. If Trixie had changed her name as a nun, Coop wouldn’t call her “Sister Trixie Lavender,” she would call her “Sister Whatever-Her-Nun-Name-Was.”
There aren’t many religious facts in this book, so I’m not sure if this simply indicates a lack of research or if the author decided to change this fact intentionally. The facts of this world are introduced really gradually by Trixie, who is the narrator. We see the entire story through her perspective. Trixie makes a lot of mental notes to ask Coop at some later date about various aspects of Hell, the existence of Heaven, other demons, etc. I assume that these details will be filled in as the series progresses.
Coop’s back story is very vague, although the book hints that there will be more development later in the series. She lived in Hell and acted as a tattoo artist for the demons there, hating every second, plotting her escape. She and Quigley took their opportunity to escape when they had the chance. But Hell is a much different society than what we have in the United States, as surprising as that may seem sometimes. Coop is a lot like Drax the Destroyer (Guardians of the Galaxy) in that she does not understand metaphors. Her first instinct in difficult situations usually involves a sword, because the only way to guarantee personal safety in Hell is through violence. Trixie and Coop work together to make Coop’s behavior more human-appropriate.
Trixie is intermittently possessed by an unknown demon, and they are unsure what brings on her possession. She is only possessed once in this book. While possessed, Trixie exhibits unnatural strength and uncontrollable rage, and she doesn’t remember any of the events of her possession. Coop has to hold her back until the episode passes and then explain what Trixie missed while the demon took over her body. Each possession poses a huge challenge for Trixie and Coop because this book is set in a world like ours; people don’t know that demons and Hell exist, so it is impossible to tell the police, “I couldn’t help it! I was possessed!” Trixie’s sudden and extreme feats of strength and rage will be difficult to cover up if she has a too-public possession.
While the murder mystery is solved by the end of this book, the larger mystery of Trixie’s possession and excommunication will be gradually developed and resolved throughout the series, as well as elements of the world that will need to be filled in. I’m intrigued enough to keep reading the series just to see how their backstory will unfold. The unique characters and quirky community don’t hurt either.