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Festival of Reading: Cheryl Hollon's 'Cracked to Death' takes readers on St. Petersburg tour

Cheryl Hollon
Published Nov. 2, 2016

The Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading presents more than 50 authors, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 12 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Cheryl Hollon will speak at 3:15 p.m. in USFSP Davis 105. Find more information here.

You might think that the worst perils of making glass art are a few cuts and burns if you get careless.

Not if you're hanging around Webb's Glass Shop, the central setting in Cheryl Hollon's mystery series. Art just might kill you.

Hollon based Webb's (with its local history-inspired moniker) on one of St. Petersburg's real businesses, Grand Central Stained Glass & Graphics, where, as far as I know, no murders have occurred.

But Hollon, who lives in St. Petersburg and makes glass art herself, makes deft use of it as a setting for her mysteries, written in the popular cozy style that's low on violence and often features amateur sleuths rather than professional detectives as main characters.

In Hollon's books that amateur is Savannah Webb, the young woman who owns the shop. In the first book in the series, Pane and Suffering, she investigated her father's death; in the second, Shards of Murder, she looked into the case of a victim whose body was found at a waterfront art show.

Hollon's latest, Cracked to Death, finds her turning over instructor duties at the glass shop to her somewhat ditzy assistant, Amanda, so Savannah can get a new studio in the Warehouse District up and running.

Amanda has some stage fright over her first day in front of a class, even though she knows most of the cast of lovable eccentrics that are enrolled in it already.

The most interesting part of the class turns out to be the reveal of a couple of salvaged bottles one student brings in for the day's upcycling project. Martin Lane, an enigmatic young man, says he found the bottles while diving. Their shape, glass type and stunning cobalt blue color tell Savannah that they might be valuable antiques, so Martin sets them aside for her to appraise rather than turning them into cheese trays.

The next morning, a young couple walking their dog along Boca Ciega Bay find the body of a diver in scuba gear. In his dive bag are fragments of blue glass. On his corpse are the marks of trauma.

Savannah's knowledge of glass makes her a part of the murder investigation. That lets Hollon take the reader on a tour of St. Petersburg landmarks, from Haslam's Book Store to the St. Petersburg History Museum, and architecturally interesting neighborhoods, with stops at the Queen's Head, Cappy's Pizza and Mazzaro's Market, among other dining spots. (Savannah has healthy appetites.)

The case also leads into questions about the perhaps fictional, perhaps not Gaspar the Pirate, whose storied hidden treasure trove might be the source of those blue bottles — and the reason someone is willing to kill over them.

The novel's pace is leisurely, built around character interactions, travelogue and lots of information about glass art and its history.

But it's not all pirate tales, glass flowers and cranberry scones. Sometimes there's a shootout in Jungle Prada before the murder gets solved.

As one student says to Savannah, "I must say, there always seems to be a crime connected with each of your classes. … I'm beginning to have grave concerns about your associations, young lady."

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