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