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Book Review: For Keeps: A Sam Moore Mystery by Aaron Paul Lazar

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Regardless of the subject matter, Aaron Lazar’s smooth, utterly readable prose never fails to draw the reader in. For Keeps features retired doctor Sam Moore, who Lazar fans will remember from Healy’s Cave and Terror Comes Knocking. All Sam wants to do is enjoy his retirement years relaxing in his delightful garden, enjoying his wife Rachel’s superb cooking, and playing with his grandchildren. Sam, however, is a man who seems to attract drama, and in this story, he is drawn into a murder mystery that becomes more and more personal, threatening to undermine his sanity and destroy everything he cares about. Sam Moore is an exceptionally well drawn character. Existing fans of this series will enjoy the progressive story of Sam, as For Keeps goes deep into his psyche, revealing his long suppressed pain and a surprising number of secrets. For new fans, For Keeps provides enough backstory to enable this book to be read as a standalone novel.

Throughout the rapid plot development, Sam’s past is revealed slowly, and his emotional tension worked out without ever undermining his compelling integrity. Though Sam has more to hide than he indicates when he tells his friend Lou that he has no secrets from his wife Rachel, the reader nevertheless comes to empathise with him greatly as he uncover the events that threaten his world and the people he loves. The other characters in the story pivot around Sam, including Sam’s wife Rachel, who is struggling with MS; the slightly inept and ever-hungry officer Ned Olsen; Sam’s daughter Beth and her prescient girlfriend Nellie;  Sam’s daughter-in-law Maryellen, who struggles to cope with two wild young children while her husband, Sam’s son, is off in Iraq. Clearly this is a world where family is of prime importance. The loving and realistic depictions of family life are part of what makes this novel so satisfying:

One of the things that links the family together is Sam’s incredible garden. This is the hub of the Moore household, and there is enough rich loam, and ripe vegetables to make the reader’s mouth water:

“Three foot high elephant-ear-sized leaves shaded the squash proliferating beneath. Sam stepped high to avoid trampling the vines. Leaning over to brush aside the prickly leaves, he ignored the overgrown fruits and chose a tender selection of Middle Eastern squash, the cousa variety. His particular favorite was a light green-skinned beauty named Ghada. He selected four prime specimens.”

Another strong theme that pervades the work is the sense of community. The characters’ lives are interwoven, and they interact and bump into each other in the diners and streets of the fictional East Goodland, New York–clearly a quiet upstate neighbourhood. This provides an effective way for the reader to get to know these characters, through the perceptions of the people they grew up with, went to school with, and worked with. We find out much about Sam’s integrity and warmth in the reactions of those who have known him a long time. There are also lots of fun referents for fans of Lazar’s other novels. For example, in one scene, Sam and Rachel listen to Gus Legard’s radio show:

“The piece Professor Legarde analyzed was particularly evocative, with searing melodies that sounded mildly Japanese and Spanish at the same time. Sam imagined a Japanese tea garden with a flamenco dancer poised on an ornate bridge. The next time he saw Gus in Wegmans, he’d have to thank him.”

For mystery lovers, For Keeps won’t disappoint. There are plenty of deliciously gruesome twists and a fast-paced narrative that makes this book perfect for any reader looking for an engaging and quick read. The story includes a number of thread, including life-after-death, Satanism, the paranormal, domestic violence, and mental illness. Although Lazar pulls no punches with the plot–there is plenty of blood, cadavers, and no shortage of bad guys, somehow he manages to keep the work warm, leaving the reader energised, rather than drained by it all. Part of that is due to Sam, who is just so nice. This becomes obvious early on in the story as Sam sees to one of his former patients whose blood sugar is low. At times, the supernatural elements do stretch credulity, but because of the strength of the characterisation and the clean, rapid progression of the plot line, even a stoical, naturalistic type reader like me is willing to suspend judgement and just go with it. After all, it feels good. For Keeps is a beautifully written novel that will delight existing Sam Moore (and Aaron Lazar) fans, while drawing in new readers looking for a truly enjoyable mystery experience.

About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.