P.J. Sugar wants to be a private investigator. But a series of prior mishaps endangered, among others, P.J.’s nephew, Davey. So P.J.’s sister, Connie, an attorney with whom P.J. had been living, threw P.J. out of her house.
So private investigator Jeremy Kane, P.J.’s boss, is allowing her to sleep, temporarily at least, on the couch in his office. Jeremy has a unique “horizontal” filing system which translates to . . . Jeremy keeps files on his clients all over the floor and furniture. Tjus, P.J. knows two fundamental truths: She may end up sleeping in the Crown Victoria she has borrowed from her brother-in-law, Sergei, if Jeremy’s business picks up and his filing system finally overtakes the couch. And she really needs to get on with her life now that her relationship with Boone, a local detective, has ended, even though she still has strong feelings for him — not to mention that tattoo of his name on her arm.
P.J. has always been fascinated with the old Kellogg mansion on the lake. As a child, she would imagine what it might be like to live in such a grand house. Shockingly, she learns that the family matriarch, Aggie Kellogg, has died and left the mansion to her!
P.J. embarks on a quest to learn the Kellogg family history and figure out why Aggie would choose her to inherit the now-dilapidated home that P.J. cannot afford to renovate. Electrical, plumbing, and structural problems are just the proverbial tip of the Kellogg mystery iceberg. There is also the matter of an unsolved Kellogg murder: Years ago, Joy Kellogg Barton was found floating in the near-by lagoon.
At her church, Connie meets a handyman in need of work. Max Smith was pulled from the lake by Murph, the local hobo who lives beside the water, with no fingerprints or memories. For reasons he doesn’t recall, Max understands Arabic, knows how to pick locks, and has an intriguing red tattoo of a phoenix. Max wants to know who he is and where he comes from, so he strikes a deal with P.J. He will undertake renovating and restoring the Kellogg mansion in exchange for P.J.’s efforts to “find” him.
In the midst of all of those complications, P.J. and Connie’s mother, Elizabeth, seems to have gone missing.
So begins P.J.’s journey to piece together the murky clues about Max’s past, her own future, and, perhaps, love that lasts a lifetime and beyond, if only she and Jeremy can each come to terms with and leave their pasts behind.
In the tradition of Janet Evanovich, Susan May Warren sets into motion several intersecting story lines involving P.J. “Nothing But Trouble” Sugar, who is back in her Minnesota hometown after ten years running from place to place. As with Evanovich’s series featuring Stephanie Plum, another would-be private investigator, two men care deeply for P.J. Boone, with whom she grew up, has long held her heart, but P.J. knows that their relationship needs to be confined to friendship, not romance. After all, Boone is in large part responsible for her being known as “Nothing But Trouble,” a moniker she has internalized to the point that her self-image tempts her to resume running when challenges threaten to overtake her. But P.J. really wants to free herself from the mayhem that has characterized her past and settle down.
And then there is Jeremy, her handsome, secretive employer. He obviously returns P.J.’s feelings, but he is afraid to let go and love another woman because of the devastating losses he previously suffered. Ever so slowly, he begins to trust his feelings for P.J. and believe her when she reminds him, yet again, that her relationship with Boone is really in the past. Jeremy struggles, though, with the fact that Boone, like him, constantly appears on scene, ready to rescue P.J. from whatever pickle she has gotten herself into. The two men’s testosterone-filled fight for supremacy in P.J.’s heart and life is realistic and nearly as much fun as watching Stephanie Plum try to decide between Morelli and Ranger.
Warren expertly reveals small clues to the multiple mysteries that P.J. must solve at perfectly timed intervals. She provides just enough information to make it impossible to put the book down with reading just a few more pages to see if your hunch was right. And in the tradition of the best mystery writers, she teases her readers with details that may — or may not — ultimately be relevant to the mystery’s resolution.
And Warren surrounds P.J. with a host of colorful characters who, again, may or may not be one of the pieces to the puzzle. Whether they are or not, they are vibrantly drawn so that their likeness is easily visualized.
But P.J. is the star of Warren’s story and her misadventures will keep readers on the edge of their seats until the very last page. From the outset, when P.J. tries to her best to nail raccoon costume-wearing bail-jumper while she is dressed as a hot dog through a couple of near-death catastrophes, the predicaments in which Warren places P.J. make for unpredictable, but enjoying reading.
Interspersed amid the action are a few conversations between P.J. and Jeremy about faith. There are references to P.J. owning and reading a Bible, although not often enough by her own standards. But the few references to God are subtle and serve only to further define and shape the characters, providing a foundation that allows the reader to understand and appreciate their value systems and beliefs. Unlike Evanovich’s characters. P.J., Boone, and Jeremy are chaste. But their voices are never preachy or overtly bent on proselytizing, so Warren’s trilogy will appeal to readers from all or no faith backgrounds.
Nothing But Trouble is, at its core, about starting over — moving forward by learning about and from the past, but not allowing the past to weigh one down to the point that the future becomes infinitely elusive. Warren is clearly sending her readers a message when Max becomes disheartened, wondering aloud, “Why did I ever decide to track down my past?”
“Because . . . it matters.” Jeremy glanced away, the edges of his mouth tight as if his words had leaked out beyond his control. “Because knowing who you are gives every choice you make relevance.” He stared at P.J., tenderness in his eyes. “Because if you know what you’ve been through — th things you’ve done, both good and bad — the choices you make today have merit. Resonance.” He touched her face, ran a thumb down her cheek. “Not knowing your past steals meaning from your future.”
The action bogs down just a bit with a few too many “will they or won’t they” moments, and it seems that P.J. and Jeremy have the same conversation about faith a couple of times more than is necessary, but those are minor criticisms. When all of the clues begin to make sense and the answers to all of the reader’s questions are about to be revealed, the pace picks up, leading to a climactic resolution, with some rip-roaringly surprising details revealed.
Susan May Warren, a Christian, says that she just tries to “to write the best story I can. . . . Writing is work, but in the end, it should give the author a deep satisfaction that she/he is working out the gift God has given them.” With Licensed for Trouble, as well the two previous P.J. Sugar adventures, Warren has put her gift to very good use and should be deriving great satisfaction from that fact. I highly recommend all three volumes, but especially Licensed for Trouble.
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