Today I will offer my fellow bookworms an assortment of mini-reviews on the most recent mysteries I have read. First, though, are some things you should know about my personal reading tastes so you can determine how similar yours might be
I tend to like mysteries that focus on police detectives or professional PI’s but a couple of my favorite authors feature amateur sleuths and/or cats. Among these are the Midnight Louie series and the Benni Harper series. Both feature amateurs who seem to always be finding bodies in the course of their everyday lives and feel compelled to find out who killed them with or without police cooperation, and I love both these series. I think it’s because the characters are intelligent people and don’t take as many stupid risks or engage in the silliness I’ve seen in some cozy mysteries.
I don’t like reading a lot of profanity but will tolerate some if consistent with the characters’ otherwise likable personalities. I don’t want to read page after page of it, though. Neither do I enjoy a lot of bedroom scenes — especially those that seem to be there for no good reason that contributes to the plot. I would prefer to follow the process of solving the crime and not have to see violence, blood, and gore unless it helps me in trying to figure out who the murderer is.
I read a lot of Christian inspirational fiction, but have discovered it is not all of equal quality. For example, I did not get much inspiration from Tears Fall at Night even though many people say they did. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed Stealing the Preacher by Karen Witemeyer, since it showed how a consistent witness of walking the walk may be the best way to win over someone who is resistant to preaching. I found the characters believable and enjoyed getting to know them.
Now that you know where I’m coming from with regard to fiction, here are some comments on my recent reading.
52 Steps to Murder by Steve Demaree
52 Steps to Murder (Book 1 Dekker Cozy Mystery Series)
by Steve Demaree , was clean, as far as mysteries go, but slow moving, especially at the beginning. The detectives, Cy and Lou, were Christians and prayed each morning before they left their homes. Lou often received a “word from God” each morning that usually turned out to be a clue in solving the case. I wish, though, that these men had also paid attention to the Scriptures that told them how to treat their bodies.
I felt that Cy Dekker, lead detective for the Hilldale Police Department, and his partner, Lou Murdock, were not all that concerned about their lack of fitness and their tendency to overeat. Cy made a big deal out of how difficult it was to climb the 52 stairs to the hilltop homes he often needed to visit during the investigation. This was humorous, but also a bit pathetic. I understand though, that on the detectives’ schedule, a fitness program and healthy meals weren’t always practical. I suppose the author also thought the humor helped break the tedium of climbing all the stairs each day.
Another source of humor was Cy’s ongoing effort to escape from his unattractive single neighbor who lay in wait for him with her little poodle Twinkle Toes every morning as he left for work. Although these encounters offered comic relief, it still bothered me that Cy had no problem insulting Heloise Humphert at each encounter. It was also unbelievable that any woman would act the way Heloise did in misinterpreting everything Cy did and said. I have to admit, though, that these encounters did relieve some of the book’s tension. I’m sure that’s the real reason Demaree included them. I just think it detracts from the image of Cy and Lou as Christians.
The mystery itself involved two women who had been poisoned, but the timetable was such that it seemed to eliminate everyone who could have committed the crime. That is it did until the detectives learned of the underground tunnels that were common knowledge among the neighbors. Suspects had many ways to come and go unseen by anyone. I won’t spoil the ending, but I was interested enough to keep reading. I probably will read more in this series. This isn’t as exciting as the In Death Series by J. D. Robb, but I’ve read far worse detective novels than this. The investigative work was very thorough.
My first introduction to the Dekker Cozy Mystery series was
I downloaded this free from Amazon. It was first published in 1906 and is now in the public domain. If you are only used to reading literature written in the past few decades, you might find the manners and language in this book a bit antiquated. After a few pages of reading, however, I expect you will be drawn into the book.
We meet young medical school graduate James Elliot on the road walking from his home village of Gresham 25 miles to the village of Alton, where he will begin his practice of small town medicine assisting Doctor Thomas Gordon (‘Doc’). He will live in the doctor’s home, along with the doctor’s widowed sister and her daughter.
James soon discovers that everyone seems to have secrets they are keeping from each other, and you will become as curious to learn them as James is. There is the hint of the first one when James meets a lovely young woman on his way to Alton and rescues her from a mysterious man who seems to embody evil. It turns out that she is Clemency, Doc Gordon’s niece, and they will meet again in the doctor’s house. James realizes he should act like he is meeting her there for the first time. There are several more encounters with the mystery man to come, and it’s obvious that Clemency must be kept out of his sight, but we don’t learn why until the end of the book.
Another theme in this book was the illness of the doctor’s sister, Mrs. Ewing. James could tell she was ill, but Doc denied it when James asked what was wrong. I was surprised that near the end of the book, the author dealt with the moral dilemma posed by assisted suicide.
James, Doc, Clemency, and Mrs. Ewing are all decent people. The last three suffer because of all the secrets surrounding them and their past pain. They care about the ethics and morals of their day, though Doc often tries to escape his pain with Apple Jack.
This book may not appeal to modern readers, but once I got into it I found it hard to put it down. It certainly doesn’t cost anything to download the free eBook and decide for yourself if it’s worth reading. Just click the book image above to get to a download page.
That’s enough books for one post. I’d be interested in your opinions if you have read any of these. Feel free to comment. My taste may be different from yours, but not necessarily better. Reading is a personal experience.
The Benni Harper Mystery Series is Set in San Luis Obispo County
I first became interested in the Earlene Fowler’s Benni Harper mysteries when I heard they were set in my county, San Luis Obispo County, in California. The first one I got my hands on was Goose in the Pond (Benni Harper Mystery). Like most books in this series, it was set in San Celina. Benni’s official job is director of the Josiah Sinclair Folk Art Museum. The museum ties in with the quilt theme reflected on the covers and in the titles of the Benni Harper books, and quilts and quilters play a significant role in these mysteries.
Which Places are Fictional and Which are Real in Fowler’s Benni Harper Mystery Books?
Fowler has changed the name of the city of San Luis Obispo to San Celina, but she refers to other cities in the county, such as Paso Robles, by their real names. I gave my brain a workout trying to figure out what library she was talking about that was near a lake in Goose in the Pond. I know where the library in San Luis Obispo is, and there is no lake nearby.
I finally found Fowler’s Fool’s Puzzle Tour, where she does explain that her library building was based on the Huntington Beach Library where she had worked, and in The Goose in the Pond she put it near Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo. I walked around that lake a couple of months ago and took the photo which appears above.
The people and businesses Earlene Fowler writes about are mostly fictional, but it’s fun trying to see if they are based on actual places. On the website linked to above and on her Irish Chain tour, she tells us which places are real and which buildings and locations inspired her descriptions of them.
Who’s Who in the Benni Harper Series
After reading The Goose in the Pond, I realized the Benni Harper mysteries were best read in order, so I went back to the first one, Fool’s Puzzle (Benni Harper Mystery), and started reading. In this first book Benni is a recent widow making a fresh start in San Celina. She had lived on a ranch with her husband Jack before he died. She had lived on her parent’s ranch since she was a child.
Her Grandma Dove still lived on the ranch owned by Benni’s father. Dove had moved there to help raise Benni after Benni’s mother had died . When we meet Benni, she is working in the city as the director of the Josiah Sinclair Folk Art Museum . When she discovers a dead body in the course of her work, she plays sleuth, causing a run-in with the San Celina police chief, Gabe Ortiz. Their relationship remains antagonistic through most of the book.
By the time we progress in the series to State Fair , Gabe and Benni are married. They have had their share of problems and worked have them through. Those who have read all the way through the series have also met the other main characters.
Dove, Benni’s grandma who raised her
Hud, a deputy sheriff who raises Gabe’s hackles by paying too much attention to Benni
Elvia, Benni’s best friend who owns Blind Harry’s bookstore
Benni’s cousin Emory, who is married to Elvia
Their infant daughter, Sophia
Garnet, Dove’s sister, who is visiting from Arkansas
Conflicts in Earlene Fowler’s State Fair
Since Benni has been raised on a ranch and still is active in ranching activities at her father’s ranch, she has been involved in the Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles since childhood. She is also very busy at this year’s fair judging pig-wrangling, making sure things go right at the folk art museum’s exhibit of African-American folk quilts, and keeping her great aunt Garner, out of Dove’s hair. The two sisters wage constant battle with each other, so Benni agreed (under duress) to take her off Dove’s hands for many of the fair days.
Themes running through this book include racism, the conflict between Dove and Garnet, and local crime. There’s still a hint of conflict between Hud, who is responsible as part of the sheriff’s department for fair security, and Gabe, who attends fair events but has no jurisdiction over criminal events in Paso Robles. There is also rivalry between the sheriff’s department and the Paso Robles Police.
Racism Rears Its Head as the Fair Begins
In the book, a new fair director, Levi Clark, an African-American, has been appointed. Not everyone is happy about it, and there are rumors that he was an affirmative action appointee who might not be the best person for the job. Benni considered him very qualified and had known him since he began at the fair cleaning restrooms years earlier, and she had watched as he had worked his way up to fair manager.
Early in the fair, Benni learned Levi had received some letters insinuating he hadn’t received his job fairly and that he might have bitten off more than he could chew, and that he might be sorry. These had been reported to the Paso Robles Police Department, but not to the sheriff’s department. It’s evident when Hud learns this that he is upset he wasn’t notified. After all, his department has jurisdiction over the fair.
Fair Food and the New Hospitality Center
Benni loves the fair atmosphere and its tempting fair-only deep fried avocados, deep-fried Twinkies, and other fattening treats. For her, it’s like an annual reunion of the agriculture people she has interacted with for years. She likes to hang out at the Hospitality Center, informally known as the Bull Pen, with other fair Booster Buddies.
Her cousin Emory had made a big contribution toward remodeling the hospitality suite for this year’s fair to make it more comfortable for Booster Buddies and their friends to gather there for drinks, snacks, and making deals. Most of the movers and shakers in the county’s agriculture and business community had paid the $500 annual fee to become members and also worked hard to promote the fair. That’s one reason so many important conversations take place there during the course of the book.
A Stolen Quilt
The Josiah Sinclair Folk Art Museum booth is featuring a collection of African-American quilts made by the Ebony Sisters Quilt Guild. The focal point of the exhibit was to be a special replica of a historical story quilt made by renowned historic quilter Harriet Powers.
On opening day, the Ebony Sisters report that the quilt has been stolen. They find another quilt to hang in its place, hoping the theft is just a prank and that the quilt will be found and rehung.
The Family Farm Exhibits
One of Benni’s favorite exhibit areas is that where the family farms have their displays. She knows the families. Traditionally each farm family was given an exhibit space to decorate according to the year’s theme. Usually, the children were involved in the decorating.
Benni is disappointed that this event has become more competitive and that the adults have almost taken over the decorating so as to make their displays more professional looking. The winning family usually had its display featured on the front page of the Tribune. This year’s theme was “Cow Town Boogie.”
Benni walks around the family farm exhibits taking photos. The Blue Ribbon Grand Prize winner had not exactly followed the theme, but Benni could see why it had won. She was a bit upset that it appeared the booth had been designed and built by professionals, not by Milt Piebald’s family.
Although the Piebald family lived on a large ranch and had some livestock, Milt made his living by selling cars in his five used car dealerships spread throughout the county. Everyone knew how much he liked to win. Although he was not considered a really reputable dealer, he did give generously to the community.
The Cattle Drive Through Paso Robles
Gabe, Benni, and her dad participated in the annual cattle drive through the streets of Paso Robles. I had fun deciphering the names of the streets the cattle ran through to get to the fairgrounds, but Fowler’s code was easy to break for this local. The cattle drive went smoothly almost to the end when a horse got loose and caused a bit of excitement. Due to Gabe’s quick action, the situation was soon back under control.
The Dead Body
Back at the fair, Dove corners Benni and says she’s got to help her. Garnet is driving her crazy. Benni agrees to entertain her aunt for the rest of the day. She first takes Garnet to see the family farm exhibit.
It is Aunt Garnet who comments, upon seeing the Piebald exhibit, ‘Look at that old pickup truck….Daddy used to call them pick-me-up trucks….He had one just like that, only it was dark blue. I remember many times taking cold lemonade out to him when he was working on that truck. Just like that there dummy. Seeing those legs sticking out like that brings Daddy back like it was yesterday.’
Benni turned back to look at the exhibit again to study the truck. She saw the legs Garnet had commented on, and she realized they had not been there earlier. She sat Garnet down and dialed Hud after taking a closer look and confirming that the legs were human and dead. It turns out the body is wrapped in the missing quilt.
Garnet Plays Detective
From then on Garnet is determined to play detective and find out who the killer is — a role Benni herself usually takes. This obsession gives Garnet an interest other than fighting with Dove, who is sure Garnet wants to find and steal her famous cornbread recipe. Garnet’s efforts to play detective almost get Benni and her family and friends killed, although Benni herself did her part in stirring up the skinheads who threatened them.
A subplot involves the reason for Garnet’s visit and why she won’t reveal how long she plans to stay. Everyone senses this is no ordinary visit, but the sisters refuse to communicate in a straightforward manner. They just don’t get around to talking about why Garnet is really there. It finally comes out near the end of the book, after the other mysteries have been solved.
Why I Enjoyed the Book
Fowler handles both plot and characters deftly. I find it hard to put her books down, and I always look forward to the next one. The subplots are woven artistically into the main plot. I didn’t even mention most of the subplots in State Fair here, nor many of the minor characters who played important roles in those subplots.
Part of the fun in this series is watching what happens in the lives of the main characters from book to book. You get to know each one very well. They have their quirks but I still love them. The characters are so well-developed that you would be able to identify them just by what they say to each other. They grow on you.
I can visualize having a party and inviting all of them for a fascinating evening. They will not be sneaking into the bedrooms or using foul language. Instead, they will be engaging in lively and sometimes quirky conversations and teasing each other.
Who Should Read This Book
If you enjoy well-written mysteries with a memorable cast of characters, you will want to read the Benni Harper Series by Earlene Fowler. If you live in San Luis Obispo County, the books will be even more appealing. They will not only make you laugh, they will make you think. You can find all Earlene Fowler’s books here on Amazon.