Minotaur Books, 200 pp., $22.95
I was going to begin this review with a slightly dismissive but by no means sales-dropping remark that "this would be a great book for my mother." Nancy Bell has carved a nice niche for herself with the Hill Countrified detective novels featuring sleuth Biggie Weatherford. The slightly syrupy series features a small Texas town called Job's Crossing and language more Southern than even my great Aunt May could mumble around her cornpone, which is something I nibble only rarely, like pecan pie at Threadgill's. This book is different.
It still has the cloying cuteness, but the concerns speak to a very real Texas mindset. Biggie and her crew, including 12-year-old J.R. Weatherford, the narrator, are visiting Quincy, Texas. Quincy, close to Job's Crossing, has what Job's Crossing wants -- a Historical Society. When Biggie et al. arrive in Job's Crossing, they stay at a bed and breakfast filled with antiques, Southern food, and a heapin' helpin' of Texana, including its own ghost legend. The ghost puts in her appearance the night of a fairly gruesome murder. (A connoisseur of horror literature, even I was a bit struck with J.R.'s comments on the goldfish in the fountain eating the globules of blood from the dead girl.) The local sheriff conveniently develops a medical condition and orders his dumb-as-dirt deputy to let Biggie take over the case. This is as standard a cozy as you'll read.
But the difference comes in the background. With an almost Faulknerian sense of Southern Gothic, Biggie weaves a multi-generational tale that leads up to murder. Everyone trapped in the small town is caught in a web of familial-becoming that stretches back to a prostitute named Diamond Lucy, who had arrived by steamboat in 1877. The story is exactly the sort you run into again and again in the Hill Country -- some nice, slightly bawdy public story suitable for the "town museum," as the collective attic is usually called, and a private story that explains the lives of the two types of people that can never leave very small towns, the most wealthy and the most poor. With considerable grace, Bell shows us all of this while leaving the "telling" part to Biggie and her black sidekick Rosebud, who explain the how-dun-it to young J. R. (and for us the readers).
Nancy Bell is now really beginning to come into her own. This new effort is a leap beyond her earlier titles Biggie and the Fricasseed Fat Man, Biggie and the Mangled Mortician, and Biggie and the Poisoned Politician. For her faithful flock, this literary deepening will not mean an end to the fun; the humor, the food, the language are still with us. This is a great book for your mom, and one you can read on the plane while you're flying down to see her as well.
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