Cover Image: Under Lock & Skeleton Key

Under Lock & Skeleton Key

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I enjoyed reading this book, which is the first in a new series.  It was fun to catch a glimpse behind the curtain to see how magicians work their illusions.  The main character is Tempest Raj, a member of a very unusual and talented multi-cultural family.  Tempest is a stage magician from a family of illusionists and magicians - she literally grew up learning magic tricks.  She was working in Las Vegas until an accident on stage sank her career and has returned home to her unusual family.  I loved their house although I'd probably get locked in a hidden room and never find the trick that would let you out.  

Her family has a construction company called The Secret Staircase - they literally build secret staircases, hidden rooms, etc. for people who want to add a little whimsy to their homes. Tempest is going to work in the family business while she figures out her next steps, and goes with her father to one of their new jobs.  They found something very unusual in one of the rooms - a room that has been locked for a very long time - and it is a fresh body, someone that Tempest knows.  An old enemy.   

If you are a fan of locked door mysteries and magic then you will likely enjoy this book.  I love mysteries and haven't read one this complex in a very long time.  

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher St. Martin's Press/Minotaur for an advance reading copy of this book.  It was a pleasure to read and review it.
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This was such a fun book! I really appreciated the main character's blended background, family history, and occupation. The family home and the lore the author presented were both compelling, and definitely made me want to read more in the series. The mystery in this one really tripped me up--I could not figure out who the culprit was.... which was perfect. I definitely recommend this one!
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Under Lock & Skeleton Key is an engaging cozy mystery series starter full of illusions and stage magic by Gigi Pandian. Released 15th March 2022 by Macmillan on their Minotaur imprint, it's 352 pages and is available in hardcover, audio, and ebook formats. It's worth noting that the ebook format has a handy interactive table of contents as well as interactive links and references throughout. I've really become enamored of ebooks with interactive formats lately. 

I love stage magic and illusions and I'm completely crazy about old houses with hidden rooms and architectural easter-eggs like bookcases which are secret doors and mantlepieces with hidden catches to open secret panels. This book is full of them. The plot turns around an ensemble cast of specialty builders, stonemasons, and woodworkers who design and install secret rooms and hidden staircases. This is a locked room cozy with hidden rooms aplenty and skullduggery abounding. 

Although it's a murder mystery, it felt as though it were written more for a younger (YA/NA) audience. It's very much action driven with characters racing from one scene to the next at a frenetic pace. There's a fair amount of BFF drama between the main protagonist and her former BF with lots of heartfelt emotional dialogue between the two. There's also a literal locked room murder mystery with a recently dead corpse (and doppelganger of the MC) tumbling out of a wall which was just opened - no way in or out. It has a definite Nancy Drew vibe with a little whiff of Scooby Doo.

Throw in lots and lots of stage magic, a family curse (the eldest child shall die by magic), hidden motives, and crazy architectural prestidigitation, and stir well. Although I'm a few decades beyond the presumable intended audience, I found it engaging and entertaining. I was impressed over the author's expertise describing architecture and scenery; technically that's very challenging and she does it very well. Some of the dialogue is a bit choppy and some of the scenery dressing and illusions are a bit over the top and "Scooby-Doo-ish" but it's all good fun. 

I also liked that the protagonist's family is multi-ethnic and the requisite cozy recipes at the back of the book reflect her Indian/Scottish background. 

Four stars. Looking forward to what's coming next.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.
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What a fun start to a new cozy mystery series! I love that it features a Secret Staircase construction company, generations of stage magic performers, a super cool treehouse home base with plenty of secret rooms and surprises, and a Scottish/Indian/American main sleuth, Tempest. I loved the characters and setting and had a fun time reading this one. I’ll for sure check out the next in the series whenever that comes out! Thanks Net Galley and St Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books for an e-ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review!
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UNDER LOCK & SKELETON KEY by Gigi Pandian is a LibraryReads selection for March 2022. An entertaining plot with many literal twists and turns, the overall story seemed a bit slow. I liked the beginning and was intrigued by the description of hidden rooms. Another plus is the fun references to older mystery titles.  However, the mystery which centers on Tempest Raj, a young woman from a family of magicians, seemed repetitive and confusing at times. There supposedly is a curse on Tempest's family – that the eldest in each generation will die. Is it coincidence when Tempest's stunt double is found dead? How was her body hidden in a wall that appears to have not been disturbed? UNDER LOCK & SKELETON KEY, the first in a series, will likely appeal most to fans of locked room puzzles.
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Thank you to the publisher Minotaur Books for providing an e-ARC via NetGalley for an honest review.

I love reading about characters solving convoluted puzzles almost as much as I enjoy doing them myself - which is why Under Lock & Skeleton Key seemed like a fascinating read featuring a stage magician with a family construction business of making quirky hiding nooks in client’s houses. To first preface where my assumptions were wrong going into this book - it is most definitely a mystery and not a thriller. The mystery plays with a speculative element that is given a satisfying and fully realized conclusion. But there is only a single body that appears and the stakes feel low even while the main protagonist Tempest Raj fears her life may be in danger from a family curse that takes the firstborn child. 

Oddly enough, I feel like this book would have worked better onscreen. A lot of the explanations for Tempest’s tricks felt either overwritten or just outright confusing, and I think seeing them actually demonstrated would have worked much better in a different medium. The final reveal on who hid the body of Tempest’s former stage double in a wall came as a surprise to me not because of the subtle setup, but because I didn’t remember who the man even was. It was also the result of an egregious assumption one character makes that could have been completely avoided by a very necessary conversation one would think to have with a loved one they suspect of being a murderer. Miscommunication always rankles, especially when it results in something so outrageous. 

This book is going to stick in my mind most for the descriptions of the Indian food Tempest’s grandfather is constantly making for the family. While Tempest spends most of the novel fixated on a family curse she believes is lurking over her head, as well as her dead mother’s spirit, the mentions of her Scottish-Indian heritage brought something to her character outside of a typical mystery plotline. I wish her father’s business building hiding spaces in people’s houses featured as heavily in the book as part of her investigation, but that was the puzzle-lover in me wanting this to be explored more. 

Overall, I think this book is an interesting but not totally memorable mystery that takes a unique premise and never quite utilizes it to its full potential. But if you are looking for a cozy mystery that features a stage magician as its protagonist, something on a much smaller scale than something like Now You See Me, under Lock & Skeleton Key may be a good bet.
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Secret rooms, a dead body hidden behind wall, a family curse, and magicians? All this and more are included within Under Lock & Skeleton Key.

Tempest is from a family of magicians. She had a successful act in Las Vegas until she is betrayed by her jealous assistant. Tempest has no choice but to return to her childhood home. She is helping her father build a customer’s secret room when they find a dead body. All clues point to Tempest as the murderer so Tempest and her two friends must find the real killer. It won’t be as easy as pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

The book is a clear homage to my reading favs in childhood. Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and even Trixie Belden are all mentioned in the young-at-heart nostalgic plot. Dramatic discoveries (and plot twists) are abundant. Unfortunately, the book follows the children’s mystery format of repeating the clues over and over until the reader feels as battered as a corpse. This results in the conclusion being very obvious from almost the first page.

Under Lock & Skeleton Key is great for those that remember their youthful excitement at solving the crime before the book's detective. It also would be a good choice for preteens who like to read mysteries. 3 stars.

Thanks to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review.
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Thanks to Netgalley and Minotaur Books for the opportunity to read and review this title.

1This book was so much fun!  Tempest is a fifth generation magician whose family is haunted by a curse.  A tragedy during Tempest's Vegas show results in her returning home to Hidden Creek, where she is feeling sorry for herself, until the body of her former assistant turns up in the wall of a house Tempest's father is working on.  

I love the characters in this book and their relationships, their connections.  The inclusion of heritage resonates.  The locked room mystery is intriguing.  All in all, an engrossing, well-plotted novel.

This review is freely and honestly given.
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This is a new to me author and I definitely will be looking for more stories by this author. The story was so intriguing with all the twists and turns, hidden rooms ( I would love to find one) and mystery. I can’t wait to read more by this author. I would recommend this to anyone who loves mystery stories.

I received a free copy of this book and am voluntarily leaving a review.
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If I call this book Scooby Dooish would it sound like a compliment?  It kind of is.  This is not a thriller or even a mystery to take too seriously.  It was a set up of a lot of characters which, I assume, will be built upon in a series.  After all, who doesn’t love a locked room mystery?  It seems like a lot less of a mystery when the people involved are known for being magicians and making hidden rooms and staircases.  All you have to do is figure out the key.

I enjoyed the story more than I thought I would at the beginning.  Sometimes it seemed to repeat itself or over explain and that annoyed me.  I’m not a fan of that.  But then it started to feel like a light-hearted, Sunday night prime-time, kind of mystery.  There was a little twist at the end that hinted to a larger picture I will have to read more to discover.  I look forward to that.
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This may be the best premise I've ever come across in a cozy mystery series.  I \mean what mystery lover doesn't dream of hidden passages and secret staircases built into their home?  And for the most part I enjoyed this read.  Tempest is a unique cozy mystery character.  She's not the first to come home after the world fell apart on them but her actual personality is different.  Honestly, I wouldn't want to be friends with her.  She's kind of a diva with a dose of moodiness but at the same time she's intelligent, gifted at her job, and just really interesting.  I might not want to be friends with her but I'd love to watch a talk she gave on tricks of the trade.  

What kept this book from being a winner for me was that there was just so much detail.  It's the first book in the series so we have the necessary setup of the world.  On top of that there's the backstory of multiple characters, the story of the family curse with historical references, details of the very complicated compound that Tempest and her family live in, how her father came to own the compound, and a number of other side stories.  This caused the mystery to get a little lost at times and slowed the pace - especially for the first half.                                                                 

The mystery was interesting and kept me guessing and I really liked the characters.  The details of the secret places were fascinated and made me desperately want to add a secret staircase or door or nook in my own house.  I think the series has a ton of potential and I'm looking forward to the next book.
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A little magic, a family curse, mystery and murder! The characters are fun, interesting and unique. The family business is creative and adds so much to the story. How did the body of a recent murder victim get hidden in a wall that has been sealed for decades? This is a very well done locked room mystery!
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This first novel in a new series from Gigi Pandian is so rich, so stuffed with character, plot and setting, it takes a moment to absorb everything the intelligent Pandian is throwing at you.  She expects you, the reader, to hit the ground running.  Her main character, Tempest Raj, is a magician and illusionist whose career has been crushed by a spectacular failure onstage in Las Vegas, and she’s back home reconsidering her life.

She’s from a family of magicians and illusionists, and there’s a longstanding family curse: the eldest child dies by magic.  Tempest has lost a string of relatives, most recently her beloved aunt and her mother (who were known as “The Selkie Sisters”), and Tempest’s grandparents and her father are extra careful of her as they don’t want her to be next.

Her father runs a company called Secret Staircase Construction – they add witty hidden rooms and staircases at the request of a homeowner.  At the moment they are working on an old Victorian recently acquired by a man and his young son.  The day Tempest visits the construction site, a dead body – resembling Tempest – comes tumbling out of the wall.  It’s not Tempest, of course, but her former, lookalike assistant, and the discovery of her body leads to many, many questions.

While this book is at once an almost fey look at the tricks and secret construction of the houses her father works on as well as her own family homestead, Hidden Creek, it’s also a peeling back of the layers of Tempest’s backstory.  As the story proceeds, the reader is given more information, and the details of the loss of Tempest’s mother as well as the crashing of Tempest’s career become more clear and more and more fascinating.

However, this book is also a loving homage to the locked room mystery – Pandian specifically references John Dickson Carr’s classic, The Three Coffins, as well as Carr’s explanations for a seemingly impossible discovery of a body in a locked room.  The body that falls out of the wall should not have fallen out of walls that were basically untouched and sound but somehow – it did.  Tempest uses her smarts and a little bit of magical misdirection to get to a solution.  

Tempest is truly a wonderful creation.  She’s young, she’s figuring out her life (always a good thing at the start of a series), she’s an illusionist who bases her illusions on the telling of stories, and she’s surrounded by interesting people.  Her family, an odd combination of Scots and Indian (there are some great mash up recipes at the back of the book), is an even richer creation.  The whole thing is fertile soil for a long and interesting series.  I loved her nod to and reverence for the classics – not a shallow love on her part but a deep one – it held my interest and made me appreciate this odd and precious book all the more.
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I want to start by saying not to let the star rating influence your thoughts on if I enjoyed this book or not. I found this book really hard to rate. On one hand, I really enjoyed the premise, the descriptions (particularly of the food), and the dynamic of old mysteries such as Agatha Christie thrown in. My trouble with this book is that it reads like a middle grade novel when it is marketed as an adult book. There are some repetitiveness that I didn’t find necessary, but it was a good read. This is one I would love for my teen daughter, who loves mysteries, to read.
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Tempest Raj returns home after someone sabotaged her last performance in Las Vegas.  Tempest has yet to prove who committed the act but until she can, her career is toast.  Her father asks her to join the family business, Secret Staircase Construction.  The business has not been the same since her mother disappeared during an act five years prior.  Tempest is hesitant to accept, but she gets drawn in when a hidden space is discovered in the latest project.  Someone hid the body of Tempest’s former stage double in a wall of the house.    Tempest cannot help but wonder if someone meant to kill her.  It also has Tempest wondering if it is her turn to fall victim to the Raj family curse.  The only way to get answers is for Tempest to channel her favorite sleuth and investigate the crime.  Under Lock & Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian is the debut of A Secret Staircase Mysteries.  This is a multicultural cozy mystery.  We get to meet Tempest Raj, an illusionist along with her grandparents, father, and best friend (plus a cast of secondary characters).  Tempest has an interesting and colorful family.  I enjoyed learning about Tempest and meeting the Raj clan.  Her mother disappeared five years prior during an act.  I have to wonder what happened to her.  I hope we find out in the future (could it be part of the family curse).  There are hidden rooms, secret staircases, illusions, magic, and plenty of mouthwatering food in this cozy mystery.  There is even a secret library.  I love that Tempest’s bedroom is hidden in her home.  There are plenty of secret spaces in the Raj families unique dwelling (or should I say dwellings).  Tempest and her best friend, Ivy grew up reading mysteries.  The author mentions some of my childhood favorites.  The whodunit has some clever parts.  I was curious how a killer could get a dead body in a hidden space that has seemingly not been opened in decades.    Tempest did a good job at investigating the crime.  The killer, though, was easily identified.  The reveal was a little bit confusing. I had to reread the ending to capture all the different bits.  There is quite a bit of repetition in the story.  I wish it had been eliminated and the book would have been a better length.  There are times when I felt the story is aimed at a younger audience (Tempest is in her mid-20s).  This was a lighthearted, fun cozy mystery that has many great elements.  It will be interesting to see what designs Tempest comes up with for Secret Staircase Construction.  Under Lock & Skeleton Key is magical tale with secret staircases, a dead doppelganger, a centuries old curse, a missing mother, a curious key, mouthwatering morsels, hypnotizing illusions, and a surprising missive.
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This was really all over the place. Not my cup of tea. Too much drama and not one straight story line. Very confusing
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Is there anything cooler than a hidden staircase or a secret room? Add a brilliant magician, and a family curse, and you’ve got Gigi Pandian’s forthcoming Under Skeleton Lock & Key (March 15, 2022), the first in the Secret Staircase series. She’s the writer behind the Accidental Alchemist Mystery Series and Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mysteries and winner of several awards including the Agatha and Lefty. Her short story, “The Locked Room Library”, published in July/August of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, has been nominated for both Agatha and Edgar awards. On top of it all, she’s also a co-founder of Crime Writers of Color. Murder & Mayhem had a chance to talk with Gigi about her work...
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For those who love magic, this is a wonderful read. I was intrigued by the profession of the father of Tempest (the main character and narrator). He owns a building company which builds hidden staircases and rooms. Throughout the book secret curses, rooms, and other mysteries are introduced in this great family centered book.     I really enjoyed the twists throughout the book, as well, as the riddles.
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I didn’t love this one. I thought it was a little immature and had more of a YA feel. 

This is definitely a multi layered who-dunnit mystery. I just found the chapters to be annoyingly short and very little character development. Towards the end I couldn’t keep up with the “guilty” parties coming out of the woodwork. 

Overall was a fun light mystery but was not one of my favorites.
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This was such a different concept from what I normally read! It was almost a cozy mystery meets a magic show?! I think that’s the best way to describe it! I really enjoyed the characters!! I think my favorite was Tempest’s grandfather!! The way he wanted to feed everyone reminded me of grandpa!! The mystery in this installment of the series wasn’t one I figured out either! And I can’t wait to read more of this series to try and figure out the mystery behind Tempest’s mom’s disappearance! 4.25 stars!!
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