With apologies to aficionadoes of hot new cool fiction, this and the next entry will hark back to older mysteries which I quite like. Tastes vary, and not everyone will like these two authors, but I like both for their descriptions of places I’m familiar with as much as for the mysteries themselves. Today: Jo Dereske. I suspect that Dereske is better known for her Miss Zukas series, but despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I’m a librarian myself, I’ve never cared for those books. Although some details are amusing1, the depiction of a spinster librarian, with personality traits that look oh just an awful lot like mild OCD, makes me squirm; frankly, the librarians I’ve met tend to be closer to Miss Zukas’ friend, Ruth. No, I prefer Dereske’s Ruby Crane series, not least for the descriptions of Michigan; they’re set not too terribly far from where I live now2 and much of what Dereske describes reminds me of towns I’ve seen here.
In Savage Cut, our heroine Ruby Crane leaves her job as a handwriting expert working in forgery detection in California to return to the small town in Michigan where she grew up and the lakeside cabin which she inherited from her mother in the hope that this will allow her daughter time to heal. (Ruby is divorced, and her teenaged daughter was badly injured in the automobile accident that killed her ex-husband.) When her best friend’s husband is killed in his mill, and that same friend is killed in a car accident shortly thereafter, Ruby starts investigating Mina’s death, convinced that her friend’s suicide note is a forgery. In Cut and Dry, the owner of the town’s one hairdressing salon is found strangled in her shop; needless to say, Ruby is called in to assist the sheriff in his investigation and uncovers not only more than he expected about the victim but more than she’s willing to tell him. The third in this series, Short Cut, takes Ruby Crane out to the home of her estranged sister, Phyllis, in New Mexico to examine the plans for a structure in a national park which the sister designed…but which collapsed, killing a young man who’d snuck out with friends after dark one day before the facility opened. Phyllis claimed the plans had been altered, weakening the structure.
The first two are fun cozies to read: they’re a trifle darker than the Hannah Swensen and Goldy Bear series as Dereske touches a bit on family dysfunction and the general “in one another’s pockets” aspect of small-town life in Michigan; it’s hard not to be thus in towns where there’s only one or two grocery stores, hairdressers/barber shops, car repair places and so on. Unfortunately, the third in the trilogy was the weakest by far–I suspect that it was written to fulfill a contract rather than because Dereske had any genuine inspiration for or desire to write a third book. It’s always struck me as the flattest and least descriptive of the three, as if Dereske had merely passed through Albuquerque and thought it might make a nice place about which to write, but didn’t have any real personal experience of the area. The first two are more detailed and (as a resident of the area) reasonably accurate about the flora, fauna and human residents in small-town Michigan. Overall, I did like the details of how one goes about evaluating handwritten documents for accuracy, though I can’t vouch for whether Dereske got that right, and the descriptions of year round life in what was intended to be a summer cabin in rural/small-town Michigan.
1such as having to sneak out back of the library to dispose of books she’s withdrawn in the burn barrel because people, unable to believe that libraries actually dispose of books, kept returning books that made it out into the community
2needless to say, the specific town in the books is fictitious, but it’s close to Lake Michigan, the nearest airport is Muskegon and in the second book, the town’s hairdresser routinely drives into Lansing for supplies