No matter where you live in the U.S. or British Isles, chances are that some one is writing a mystery series set in your neck of the woods. Hangin' around one of the size acceptance message boards, I recently was directed to a series by Denise Swanson set in Central Illinois, land of the Pop Cultrue Gadabout: the Scrumble River mysteries. Just finished the series' debut, Murder of A Small-Town Honey, and found it to be a spritely entry in the Main Street Mystery sub-genre.
Perhaps the most notable modern practitioners of this particular brand of mystery novel are Lillian Jackson Braun and Charlotte MacLeod. Typically more lighthearted than big city detective fiction, these books focus more on quirky provincial characters and mores than they do on deep dark histories or noirish betrayal. At their best (MacLeod in her Peter Shandy mysteries, set in agricultural college community; Braun in her better Cat Who . . . novels), they can combine the pleasures of a formal old-fashioned mystery with a comedy of manners. An ideal, summer quick-read, in other words.
On the basis of Swanson's debut novel, I'd say she has the manners element down more strongly than the mystery. Honey introduces us to Skye Denison, a plus-sized school psychologist who's returning to her hometown of Scrumble River, IL, after being canned from her first big job counseling in New Orleans. (Unlike mystery writer Lynne Murray, whose plus-size detective Jo Fuller makes a political statement about her dress size, Swanson doesn’t even tell us her heroine is fat 'til half-way into the book.) Also smarting from a broken engagement, Skye gets the job serving all three schools in the area thanks to family connections, and she's not entirely thrilled to be returning. As high school valedictorian, she'd delivered a youthfully arrogant kiss-off to her home town: now that she's back, family and friends can't resist regularly bringing up that embarrassing moment up.
Our heroine stumbles onto murder the first week of her return; cajoled into participating in the small-town's annual Chokeberry Days Festival, she discovers the corpse of the festival's celebrity guest: a Chicago children's television hostess named Mrs. Gumtree, who's played by an actress and former Scrumble River native named Honey Adair. The shapely Honey was once the high school bad girl; so more than one former classmate has a motive for bumping her off. When Skye's hairdresser brother is tagged by the police as prime suspect, she takes it on herself to uncover the actual killer's identity.
Swanson divides her book between Skye's travails at home and on the job (Swanson herself has worked as a school psychologist and she clearly has the details down) – and her first foray into amateur sleuthing. She's especially strong on the family stuff, Skye's tension-packed relationship with her farm wife mother May, in particular. Ma also works nights as the town's police dispatcher, which gives Skye an inside connection to the local constabulary that I'm guessing becomes even more prominent as the series progresses.
Our heroine solves the mystery, of course – though not without first placing herself in some unconvincing peril – and takes what could be the tentative start of a series romance with the town's coroner Simon Reid. Not surprisingly, that last starts rockily, with Skye bridling because Simon reminds her of her ex-fiancé. Along the way we get perhaps too much info about the politics of school counseling plus amusing material on farm town events and the incestuous nature of small-town power structures. As a guide to all this, Skye provides an aptly iconoclastic set of eyes and ears, and I wouldn't mind returning to Scrumble River with her in the future. It's about an hour drive, we're told, from Kankakee, so I'm figuring it's maybe a good hour-and-a-half jaunt from Bloomington-Normal. . .