The conservative Rabbi of a small Massachusetts town inserts himself into the secular and criminal affairs of his congregation, illustrating that the same hypocracies, connivances and plots have been at work in American Jewry since at least 1960….
There is something annoying, something unsettling, something demoralizing about a story in which all the women are either murder victims, embittered but useless mothers, faithful, ineffectual wives, or sexually charged students with dancers’ bodies. Annoying, too, is witnessing an entire small town turn against an innocent man and his brainy wife, both outsiders, neither one well-liked. Into this remote and stupid Wisconsin town drives a detective from Naples, with one earring, spiky hair, a trust fund, (but no lap top), whose actress mother taught him that “if someone was moving their lips in Los Angeles, they were probably lying.” This assemblage of unpleasantness doesn’t stop one from wanting to find out who done it.
It could be any neighborhood in the 1970s or 1980s or any conventional middle class development with young childless couples on the verge of divorce or adultery. The neighborhood librarian becomes a felonious sleepwalker before becoming the librarian at a Women’s Correctional Institute, teaching other felons to read, doing sit ups in her cell, falling in love with a white collar criminal in the medium security men’s prison across the way.
After 12 years she is reprieved by DNA evidence and returns to the neighborhood to re-examine a life she inhabited uncomfortably. Once she was a woman in between miscarriages, who locked her doors at night so that no one would steal the mattress stained by her third dead fetus. Now she is a woman in between innocence and guilt, trying to remember the truth.
Charlie has been a guest and a prisoner of the dictator of Batanga for 12 years when he has an affair with the dictator’s favorite wife. After the wife is tortured, Charlie extradites himself to America, and stands trial for an old murder. The crime is investigated, reconstructed and solved, with a twist.
There are very few perfect beginnings to a story. Beginnings which move through images at the same rate as they move through text, rolling into a plot detectibly, sensibly, unhurriedly. A boy, for example, making the rounds on his bicycle, delivering the daily papers:
…At Colonel and Mrs Easterbrook’s, he delivered The Times and the Daily Graphic. At Mrs Sweatenham’s he left The Times and The Daily Worker. At Miss Hingecliff’s and Miss Murgatroyd’s he left The Daily Telegraph and The News Chronicle. At Miss Blacklocke’s, he left The Telegraph, The Times and The Daily Mail. At all these houses, and indeed in practically every house in Chipping Cleghorn, he delivered every Friday, a copy of the North Benom News and The Chipping Cleghorn Gazette, known simply as The Gazette. Thus on Friday mornings, after a hurried glance at the headlines in the daily paper…. most of the inhabitants of Chipping Cleghorn eagerly opened the Gazette and plunged into the local news. After a cursory glance at correspondence, in which the passionate hates and feuds of rural life found full play, most of the subscribers then turned to the local column.
We can easily sketch in our mind a series of houses, in front of which stand assorted sizes of mailbox, and in which kitchens sit the inhabitants of this happy English village, eating their singular English breakfasts, reading the headlines, the correspondence, the local news, and then, more likely than not, the Classifieds, in which are published up to the minute or almost up to the minute ads, as relevant and localizable as Tweets.
A town is the scene of what people do, become and have.
Stabenow describes happy slow small towns with unusual people who are ever so slightly insane. Who might shoot people over candy bars, or murder them in quaint hotel rooms or share fried bread with a wolf.
There are towns with female elders called “Aunties” who have outlived five or six husbands each, speak English as their third or fourth language, and who have enthusiastically and indiscriminately adopted every stray idiot that crossed their path. They have walnut brown cheeks, wear gold rickrack and are poised between misdemeanors.
Some of these towns are north and some are norther. It is cold:
He wore a balaclava and a knit cap, inside hood Gortex pro shell, ski pants, Patagonia capilene, beneath down parka guaranteed to 20 degrees (below), surround caribous guaranteed to 20 below…
Some are situated where there would be gold if it could be mined. And here there are problems.
Gamash celebrates his marriage at a bed and breakfast with beds so high you need a little step stool to climb into them and bumps into a family murder.
The first murder victim is a horror list of character flaws with L.A. citizenship:
1. She could not be bothered to make the car payments on the first of each month, even though her parents took care of the down payment.
2. She lives in a dump in Sherman Oaks but she tells everyone she lives in Van Nuys.
3. She teeters out of a bar at 3 in the morning and can’t find her car in the parking lot — but it is not her fault — why don’t they put lights in the parking lot?
4. She runs out of gas on a freeway because she can’t be bothered to check the gas, or plan anything in advance.
An intimate look at the arrangements, organization and order of small town French village life, through the eyes of the jovial, wise and well fed chief of police, for “…not a single pig made it to market without some part of it being offered as part tribute part toll to Bruno…”.
He put the grill close to the coals, arranged the steaks, and then under his breath sang the Marsellaise, which he knew from long practice took him exactly 45 seconds. He turned the steaks, dribbled some of the marinade on top of the charred side, and sang it again. Then he turned the steaks for 10 seconds, pouring on more of the marinade, and then another ten seconds. Now he took them off the coals and put them on the plates he’d left to warm on the bricks he’d left to warm on the side of the grill.
The strolling investigator offers up an amiable mix of local types, of those who “evidently conformed to the English stereotype of bizarre affection for animals dressed in gleaming black boots, cream jodhpurs,” of the prissy European officers of hygiene who threatened the taste of the local cheese, of old men who had not spoken to each other since the war.
The reader sometimes sounds as if he’s sucking on bubbles, a kind of terrible English mumbling.
Once upon a time, when the Bronx was a happy Italian village full of children in Catholic school uniforms, public schools measured reading levels in Grades: first grade, second grade, third grade. Easy peasy. Consider your contemporary girly fiction, focused on 29 year old nitwits going shopping: second grade reading level. Consider, too, your average add-an-egg-and-mix murder mystery: the latest Carolyn Hart, for example: second grade reading level. Libraries must stop ordering and re-ordering these Walmart quality timekillers and discover the beautiful prose of new and lovely conjurers — Louise Penny, and her new A Rule For Murder, for example.