Tag Archives: murder mysteries

Introducing Randy Singer: Master of Legal Thrillers

My Randy Singer Reading Binge

Move over, John Grisham.  I was disappointed with the last of your books I started — The Rooster Bar — so disappointed I didn’t finish it. This week I’ve read four legal thrillers by Randy Singer,  three of which I’m reviewing here. Between them these books deal with jury selection and tampering, gun control laws, child and spousal abuse, legal insanity pleas, protecting news sources, and even deciding which is the true religion, if any.

Why is Randy Singer my new favorite author of legal thrillers?

  • Compelling and well-developed characters
  • Intriguing plots that make it hard to put his books down.
  • Discussion of complex moral issues
  • Unexpected but satisfying endings that rarely happen as I thought they might

Although there is some graphic violence, the language is clean and any sexal behavior is implied rather than explicit. If you love reading well-written thrillers with a legal theme but prefer not to read four-letter words and sex scenes that seem inserted in a book for their own sake, I think you will enjoy reading Randy Singer.

My Reviews of Randy Singer Legal Thrillers

The Justice Game

Justice, Inc.

The Justice Game was the first of the Randy Singer books I read.  It centers on a legal consulting firm called Justice, Inc., founded by Robert Sherwood, CEO, and Andrew Lassiter, the brains behind the firm’s success. Andrew invented the software the firm used to make its predictions.

Two other main characters, lawyers Jason Noble and Kelly Starling worked for Justice, Inc. They argued important cases in front of shadow juries , concluding them before the actual court cases ended. Justice, Inc. used the shadow jury trial results to make predictions for their clients. The clients used them make profitable (they hoped) investments. A wrong prediction could cost clients millions.

The Shooting

The book opens with a dramatic shooting  on  the Virginia Beach WSYR television newscast anchored by diva prime-time anchor Lisa Roberts. She survived.  Pregnant Rachel Crawford, who was presenting a special investigative report on Larry Jameson, a human trafficker, did not. When the SWAT team finally arrived, they killed Jamison, but not soon enough to save Rachel.

Jason had watched this unfold from across the continent in Malibu. He is finishing a case there using his famous hair analysis evidence to prove accused star Kendra Van Wyke had poisoned a backup singer. Sherwood is watching the shadow trial.  If Van Wyke is convicted, Sherwood could lose $75,000,000, so he decides this will be Jason’s last trial for Justice, Inc.

Sherwood Fires Jason and Andrew

Sherwood fires Jason for “being too good” — better than most attorneys in the real trials. That throws the company’s predictions off. Sherwood also fires Lassiter after the two argue about how his software might have also caused the shadow juries to be wrong.

Jason and Lassiter have a good relationship and used to analyze case results together after trials ended. After Sherwood fires them both, Lassiter wants to hire Jason to sue Sherwood. Lassiter is upset because he can’t take the software he designed with him and and he had to sign a non-compete agreement. But Sherwood had given both an excellent severance package and helped Jason start his private practice. He won’t make any move Andrew suggests without checking with Sherwood first.

Jason doesn’t want to be caught in the middle of the conflict between his two friends and tells Lassiter to get a business lawyer. Lassiter almost has a meltdown. He is very cold to Jason when he leaves.

Jason Defends Gun Manufacturer against Rachel’s Husband

Introducing Randy Singer, Master of Legal Thrillers: Reviews of The Justice Game, By Reason of Insanity, and The Cross Examination of Oliver Finney
Should gun owners be sued if a gun they make is used in a crime?

Meanwhile, Rachel Crawford’s husband Blake decides to sue Melissa Davids.  She owns  MD Firearms which manufactures the gun Jamison used in the WSYR shooting. On Sherwood’s recommendation Melissa hired Jason to defend her. She already had a lawyer, Case McAllister, but Sherwood convinced Davids to use McAllister for overall strategy while Jason tries the case in court.

Lassiter contacts Jason again to tell him that the prosecuting lawyer, Kelly Starling, had also been trained by Justice, Inc.  Blake had hired her because she had helped sex trafficking victims. Lassiter offers Jason his services in jury selection. Neither Jason not Kelly has been practicing law very long.

Blackmail

As Jason and Kelly prepare their cases, both, unbeknownst to each other, begin to receive blackmail messages from “Luthor.” He threatens to expose the darkest secret each has if they don’t follow his directions.

If either settles the case, he will expose them. He also tells them which jurors they must keep. These are both jurors Jason is sure will hurt his case, and Andrew wants to strike them. Luthor tells Jason to use a police chief as a witness, but he also gave Kelly documents that would discredit that witness.

Introducing Randy Singer, Master of Legal Thrillers: Reviews of The Justice Game, By Reason of Insanity, and The Cross Examination of Oliver Finney
LaRon…handed his keys to Jason> “Your daddy’s the cop,” he said. “They won’t bust you for DUI. You can take me home and crash at my house.” Randy Singer in The Justice Game

The reader has already learned that Kelly’s father is a Christian pastor, and that Kelly’s secret is that she had an abortion her dad doesn’t know about. Jason’s secret is that his detective father’s partner Cory covered up that Jason was driving drunk in an accident that killed his best friend.  LeRon had drunk more and asked Jason to drive his car. Should the secret come out, not only Jason, but also his father and Cory, could lose their jobs and/or face possible prosecution.  Both Kelly and Jason live with guilt.

Moral Issues

Author Randy Singer is a Christian pastor, yet he is low key in showing his bias. It comes through in conversations between Kelly and her father.

Jason grapples with his guilt and were it  not for the damage it could do to his father and Cory, he would ignore Luthor and take his chances with the exposure of his secret. He feels guilty about not giving  his client the jury she deserves in order to protect himself.

The other moral issue the author tackles is the issue of gun control. The trial brings out both sides in terms the reader can understand.

The suspense intensifies as the plots and subplots weave their way to a dramatic climax. I will not spoil that ending by saying anymore about it. I found l liked both Jason and Kelly. It was easy to sympathize with almost all the characters. If you love legal thrillers, this book should not disappoint you.


By Reason of Insanity

Annie’s Case

By Reason of Insanity tackles the issues of legal insanity, multiple personality disorder, protecting news sources, incest, child molestation, the death penalty, and more.  It begins with Quinn Newburg’s passionate defense of his sister Annie. She is on trial for killing her husband after she feared he was making moves to molest her daughter. Her own father had molested her for years. If she screamed for help he had beaten her mother and brother if they interfered.  Quinn appeals to the jury:

Who can begin  to understand what such abuse does to a young girl’s soul? to her mind? to her psyche? ….If she had shot her father in self-defense that night…who would have blamed her?

Introducing Randy Singer, Master of Legal Thrillers: Reviews of The Justice Game, By Reason of Insanity, and The Cross Examination of Oliver Finney
Courtesy of Pixabay

Expert witness Rosemary Mancini testified that the terrified young Annie had repressed her feelings.  She later married a man ten years her senior — the heir to his father’s Las Vegas empire. He seemed charming, but there was a dark side. When he began to touch Annie’s daughter Sierra’s private parts, something in Annie snapped and she remembered her past. Quinn explains in her defense:

The rage and fear consume you and overwhelm your inhibitions until you become the monster your father and husband created….To protect yourself and Sierra, you must act…you must make it stop….And you do. 

Annie shot her husband. Quinn claims she was insane when she pulled the trigger and begs the jury for justice.

Catherine O’Rourke’s Case

Held in Contempt

Catherine O’Rourke witnessed the trial as a reporter for the Tidewater Times. Although the jury convicted Annie, one juror confessed she really thought Annie was innocent but was pressured to agree with the verdict. The judge declared a mistrial. Rosemary began counseling Sierra, and the two had good repore.

Meanwhile it appears there is a serial killer/kidnapper on the loose. The police receive notes from “The Avenger of Blood” claiming responsibility for kidnapping babies and killing murderers and the defense lawyers who who had set them free. A source from the police department contacts Annie offering undisclosed information he wants the public to know if she promises to never reveal him. She agrees because she wants the story. A judge then holds her in contempt and sends her to jail because she won’t reveal her source.

Introducing Randy Singer, Master of Legal Thrillers: Reviews of The Justice Game, By Reason of Insanity, and The Cross Examination of Oliver Finney
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Catherine’s Visions

In jail Catherine has her first vision relating to the serial murders and kidnappings. These visions continue after she is released. The visions are scary and include a  hand writing in blood red letters on the wall.

She tells her source about the visions hoping they might help the police, but instead she’s arrested because she knows facts about the murders that aren’t public knowledge. To defend herself she hires Marc Boland, a top defense lawyer,  but he supports the death penalty. She hires Quinn as co-counsel for the penalty phase, since he does not believe in the death penalty.

Catherine learns the dangers of jail as she awaits trial. Her visions continue. Some feature executions in makeshift “electric chairs.” She’s not sure if she’s awake or asleep when she gets her visions. She begins to question her own perception of reality. To complicate things even more, it appears Quinn may be falling in love with her.

My Recommendation

The plots and subplots reveal the hearts of the main characters as well as their human weaknesses. I could not help but sympathize with the struggles of Annie, Catherine, Sierra, and Quinn. The ending caught me completely off-guard. I lost a night’s sleep over this book because I couldn’t put it down. Don’t start it until you have time to finish it. This is Randy Singer at his best.


The Cross Examination of Oliver Finney

One Man’s Quest to Find Out Which Religion Is True

As the Patient learned he had one year left to live, he rapidly worked through the stages of his grief. He accepted his brain cancer diagnosis and prognosis  over the course of a month. He got his affairs in order. A lifelong atheist, he felt remorse. He could not take the billion dollars of assets he’d worked for and intended to enjoy later with him. He knows if there really is a God, he isn’t ready to meet him.

Introducing Randy Singer, Master of Legal Thrillers: Reviews of The Justice Game, By Reason of Insanity, and The Cross Examination of Oliver Finney (Or which religion is true?)
Which religion is true?

The Ultimate Reality Show

The Patient decided to use part of his money to produce “life’s greatest reality show.” The contestants chosen to participate would be powerful advocates for the world’s most popular religions. They would stay on a remote island and the producers would prevent them from contacting anyone off the island. The show would test their faith with various physical trials, as well as by cross examination in court. The Patient expected many new believers would follow the winner’s god, including himself. He believed the show would prove losing gods were powerless. He would donate millions to the winner’s designated charity or cause. What could go wrong?

Judge Oliver Finney Signs on to Represent the Christian Religion

One requirement for contestants was that each needed to have a terminal disease. Finney has metastatic lung cancer.  Producer McCormick, his interviewer for the show, reminds the 59-year-old Finney that the show will test his spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical limits. Is he really sure he’s ready for that? He says he believes he is, and he signs the contract. Little does he know then what he will face later.

Another requirement for contestants is that they have a shameful secret. The producers also required contestants to have a theological or legal background. Judge Finney not only had that, but he had also written a book anonymously about Jesus, The Cross Examination of Jesus Christ. In it he had inserted coded messages, since he also loved ciphers and codes. He hoped future readers of his book would be able to solve those puzzles.

Meanwhile, he often quizzed his clerk Nikki Moreno with questions that required her to decipher a bit of code. She wasn’t good at it. She knew just enough to help her later contact Wellington, a genius at deciphering code messages, at Finney’s direction. This enabled Finney to send secret messages via search queries on an internet site for lawyers that Nikki could access. Contestants were allowed to do internet searches, but not to send emails or post to social media.

The Contestants

The selection process had produced five contestants for Faith on Trial. The Rabbi who was representing Judaism dropped out because of pressure from the Anti-Defamation League and it was too late to replace him. Instead they allowed him five minutes time on the first show to explain to viewers why they should not watch the show. These contestants remained:

  • Judge Finney: Christianity
  • Victoria Kline: Science rather than religion
  • “Swami” Skyler Hadji: Hinduism
  • Kareem Hasaan: Islam
  • Dr. Hokoji Ando: Buddhism

The Threat

randy-singer-pin-catamaran

Contestants have no privacy except in the bathroom. There are cameras everywhere else.  Contestants wear microphones at all times except when sleeping or using the bathroom.

Finney and Kline have discovered they can leave their microphones on land if they sail together. They arrange for Finney to give Kline sailing lessons on the large Hobie Cat sailboat that was available for contestants’ use. That allows them talk privately.

Kline had overheard a conversation between the producers  as she had approached McCormack’s condo unexpectedly. She tells Finney the next day that it seemed the producers were planning to do something bad and then use their secrets to blackmail them into keeping quiet.

The Assassin

Finney also hears that he should not try to make the finals because one of the finalists will die.  The producers have let the rumors get out to test the contestants but they don’t know about The Assassin.

The reader does know about that other character on the island.  He calls himself The Assassin when communicating with those who hire him. He is part of the supporting staff for the show, but the producers don’t know his evil purpose. That purpose is to complete his last killing assignment during Faith on Trial . He plans to retire as a hitman when he completes this last job and gets paid. Readers don’t find out who he is until he acts.

Religion on Trial

Introducing Randy Singer, Master of Legal Thrillers: Reviews of The Justice Game, By Reason of Insanity, and The Cross Examination of Oliver Finney
Image Courtesy of Pixabay

Those readers hoping to learn more about the major religions will find plenty to think about. Though the Rabbi chose to drop out, leaving the Jewish religion unrepresented during the trial, readers will learn much about the other religions. As a Christian, I believe Finney’s presentation of the Christian religion is fair and accurate. I also began to see what attracts people to Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

The cross-examinations of characters try to expose weaknesses in each contestant’s faith. The Chinese water torture scenes are designed to test each character’s faith under pressure . I didn’t enjoy reading that part.

I especially enjoyed the bonding that occurred as the characters interacted, each living his faith through daily life. In my opinion  the final scene — the one that backfired on the producers, was the most powerful illustration of faith in action. I won’t spoil it for you here.  I hope you will read the book and decide for yourself.


Randy Singer: Pastor and Lawyer

Randy Singer was second in his class when he graduated from William and Mary Law School in 1986.  He began to practice law in Norfolk Virginia. He was lead counsel in several cases similar to the ones he wrote about in the books I’ve reviewed above. One, Farley v. Guns Unlimited, was the first jury trial in Virginia to receive complete television coverage. After 13 years at the large Willcox and Savage law firm in Norfolk, he began his private practice. He specialized in counter-terrorism cases.

In 2007, the elders of the Trinity Church in the Virginia Beach area called Randy Singer to be a teaching elder, and he’s still preaching as of the time of this writing in 2018. Many of his novels are set at least partly in Virginia Beach and the surrounding area.

Singer’s background as both pastor and lawyer gives him a firm foundation of first-hand knowledge for the books he writes. His writing is consistent with his Christian worldview and he’s not afraid to tackle the hard issues of faith and life.

This dual legal-pastoral background has enabled Singer to write Fatal Convictions, a book I’ve read but not yet reviewed, realistically. It deals with a pastor who takes a case defending a Muslim imam accused of being behind an honor killing. During the course of the trial the pastor almost lost his church and his life.

More Reading Recommendations

Another book you should know about figures prominently in  The Cross Examination of Oliver Finney.   The Cross Examination of Jesus Christ contains the key to the codes Finney uses to communicate with his clerk while on the island as a contestant for Faith on Trial.

Fatal ConvictionsFatal Convictions

 

For your convenience, here are links to all the books referred to above. I’m sure if you try one, you’ll want to read some of the others. You may find it useful to have the last two in your possession at the same time. 

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The Justice GameThe Justice GameBy Reason of InsanityBy Reason of InsanityThe Cross Examination of Jesus ChristThe Cross Examination of Jesus ChristThe Cross Examination of Oliver FinneyThe Cross Examination of Oliver Finney

Legal Thrillers by Mark Gimenez: Does every life matter? Gimenez deals with this theme in many of his books. Though the plots move slowly at first, they soon speed up until you can’t put them down.

The Litigators by John Grisham : An Escape from Corporate Law – A Book Review – The Litigators is the story of Chicago lawyer David Zinc’s breakdown and escape from his high-pressure corporate law firm. He snaps one morning as he’s about to take the escalator up to his office. He can’t force himself to get on. Instead he sits on a bench and has a panic attack. Where will he go from here?

 

Mixed Genre Fiction Reviews: Humor, Romance, Mystery

Mixed Genre  Fiction

I like mixed genre fiction. I enjoy almost any fiction genre more if it contains some humor. Humor can relieve the tension in a mystery or thriller. Romance can also add interest to mysteries and historical novels. Christian faith can add depth to romance, historical fiction, and mysteries.

I have been mixing it up this month. I’ve read many novels that fit into multiple genres.  Here are brief reviews of some of them. At the end of the post you will find links to the books I’ve discussed. Some of them may still be free for your Kindle. Many of the books are also available in paperback for those who prefer bound books.

 

Mixed Genre Fiction for Youth: Humor,  Mystery and Romance

 

Mixed Genre Fiction Reviews

Kait’s Strange Hobby: Adventures in Funeral Crashing

Adventures in Funeral Crashing by Milda Harris introduces us to Kait Lenox and Ethan Ripley — two people hurting because of a death in the family. Kait is sixteen and a nerd.  Her former best friend Ariel has turned into an enemy who loves to make fun of her in public. As one of the unpopular people in her school, she eats by herself. She loves to read, and her secret hobby is crashing funerals. The first funeral she attended was her mother’s, who had died of ovarian cancer, and Kait misses her — a lot.

Ethan is the most popular boy in the school. His half-sister, Liz O’Reilly, has just died of an overdose. Her friends and family were shocked since she did not run with druggies and seemed to be an upbeat person — not someone who would do drugs. Nevertheless,  the papers reported she had died of a drug overdose.

Kait decides to go to Liz’s funeral, even though she had never known Liz, who was in college. Kait’s usual practice is to be inconspicuous, wear dark clothing, and sit near the back. She tries to avoid talking to anyone who might ask her how she knows the deceased.  She figures Liz’s funeral will be big enough that no one will notice she is there.

Liz’s Funeral

Kait doesn’t want to admit to anyone she is funeral crashing. She likes funerals because she learned a lot about her mother at her funeral she hadn’t known before. Kait likes to hear the stories family and friends tell about their loved ones at the funerals she crashes.

Unfortunately, at Liz’s funeral, Ethan Ripley walked up to her and asked her how she knows Liz. Her prepared answer, that they had an English class at the community college doesn’t work with Ethan since he knows she is only in high school. So she asks how he knows Liz, and he explains Liz is his half-sister. He asks again how she knows Liz, and she flees.

Ethan Nails Kait and They Team Up to Solve the Mystery of Liz’s Death

She manages to evade Ethan for a few days before he finally finds her at the video store where she works and makes her explain how she knows Liz. She finally admits that she doesn’t and that she was just funeral crashing. Ethan asks why she likes funerals and she explains.

She talked about her mother’s funeral, and Ethan and Kait see each other’s grief. It comes out that Liz is one of several girls who recently died of an overdose, and they were all girls no one expected to be using heroin. Ethan finally tells Kait he thinks Liz was murdered. The two decide to work on the case and find out who killed  Liz and the other girls.

A Teen Romance Even an Adult Can Enjoy

There is enough humor, mystery, and romance in this book to keep most teenage girls intrigued. Even I didn’t want to put the book down.  There was a twist at the end that caught me off-guard, but I was still satisfied with the ending.

I enjoyed the interaction between the teens and the hints of budding romances. I will have to read the next books in the series to see how the romances progress and what new mysteries the friends will solve. The series has good reviews from those who have read all of the first three books. The one I have reviewed is still free for Kindle as I write this. To order, just click on the buy button at the end of this post.

The Aylesford Humorous Christian Romance Series for Adults by Steve Demaree

Brad Meets His Neighbors

I read Volume I, Pink Flamingoed, and  I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. Well-known mystery writer Brad Forrester inherits a house in what he assumes is a quiet neighborhood on Aylesford Place in December. Before he can even unpack he hears carolers outside his door.

Mixed Genre Fiction Reviews

When they have finished singing, they invite him to come with them as they gather all the other neighbors on the dead-end street. The three singers are Amy, his pretty next door neighbor, and Cora and Frank, an elderly couple. Cora explains to Brad that Amy will lead the neighborhood tour as they collect the other carolers. She explains who lives in each house and a bit about them. The church most of them go to is at the dead-end of the block. When everyone is collected they all go to  Amy’s house for a party.

What a Bunch of Characters!

The fun in this book is in the interaction between the characters, most of whom are Christians. As Brad observes them for the first time, it’s obvious that Harry, the retired IRS agent, is the brunt of most of the jokes. He is a tightwad, and they call him on it frequently. Cora is like the adopted mother of the single young adults who live on the block. They confide in her and she gives them advice.

Melanie is a single real estate agent who chases any man near her age who crosses her path. Cora tries to tell her that she may be scaring off those men who might like to do the chasing themselves. Amy is a professional photographer.

Pastor Scott Ambruster and his wife Nancy have the only children on the street, Jill, Kenny, and Mallory. They also add humor to the book as they tease each other. Kenny’s greatest fun seems to be in making his sisters miserable.

The most infamous resident on the block is someone no one ever sees. The neighbors call her Witch Peabody, but her real name is Minerva. Her fortress-like house with an iron gate is next to the park. No one dares get near it,  for it’s said that she shoots anyone who does. She frightened a couple of Mormon missionaries so badly that they ran away and no Mormon ever came back to the neighborhood.

One Big Zany Family

It soon becomes evident to the readers that the neighborhood is like a big family. They tease each other, but they care for each other. Within this neighborhood, there are four budding romances before the book ends, and one of the couples is not young.

Mixed Genre Fiction Reviews: Humor, Romance, and Mystery

Cora seems to be the ring leader of the group — the one who organizes things and keeps everyone — including Harry — in line. She is the one who organizes the church fundraiser where the pink flamingo comes into play.

The Pink Flamingo

One unlucky neighbor is chosen by lot to be the first to receive the pink flamingo Cora provides.  The person with the flamingo must place it in plain sight in the yard of another neighbor — without being seen. If a neighbor finds the pink flamingo in their yard, they have to donate $20 to the fund for the orphanage and be the next one to get rid of the flamingo. If they get caught placing the flamingo, they have to donate $20 to the fund.

Tightwad Harry is determined avoid having to make that $20 donation. That’s why he sleeps on the front porch the first night. I won’t tell you how that turned out. You need to read the book,   which currently, as I write this is free. You have to pay for the rest of the books in the series.

There are many humorous subplots, most involving Harry. There are also some mysteries to be solved. Why is Minerva a recluse? Who is the mysterious Moses on the church email list? Harry’s efforts to solve this one make his wife sure he’s having an affair. She also thinks that’s why Harry wants to sleep on the porch.

Pink Flamingoed Will Make You Laugh

Pink Flamingoed is slapstick funny and should appeal to most adult ages who just want to laugh. I think seniors will most appreciate the humor and may catch more of it than younger people might.

The characters are not as well developed as they could be, but their interactions show you a lot about them. What they do reveals their personalities, as well as their affection for one another.

The books in the Aylesford Place Series are not literary, but they are entertaining. They make great escapes when you don’t want to get involved with a thriller.

Steve Demaree also writes humorous detective novels, but the Christian elements in  those seem out of place. His treatment of Christian faith is more realistic in the Aylesford Place series.

The links below are to books in a series. Just click through to see the individual books. The first volume in each series may still be free. It is as I write this, but that could change at any time.

 

 Aylesford Place Humorous Christian Romance Series (4 Book Series) Funeral Crashing Mysteries (4 Book Series)

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Mixed Genre Fiction Reviews: Humor, Romance, Mystery

Earlene Fowler’s Benni Harper in State Fair

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.

Earlene Fowler's Benni Harper in State Fair
Laguna Lake, San Luis Obispo

 

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.

Earlene Fowler's Benni Harper in State Fair
Scene from Mid State Fair, 2005, CC 2.0

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.

 Benni Harper’s Quilt Album: A Scrapbook of Quilt Projects, Photos & Never-Before-Told Stories

 

 

Here’s a sampling of Earlene Fowler’s Benni Harper Books. Benni Harper fans might also be interested in Benni  Harper’s Quilt Album.

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 Fool’s Puzzle (Benni Harper Mystery) Irish Chain (Benni Harper Mystery) Kansas Troubles (Benni Harper Mystery)

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