Given that not too far into Leave Tomorrow Behind, the latest in Judy Clemems’ Stella Crown mystery series, a budding country music singing star is found mysteriously dead at the county fair, that the author is able to keep readers concerned with collateral problems like livestock tampering, a possible fixed beauty pageant, accusations of incompetence against a veterinarian, and the heroine’s hassles with her prospective sister-in-law over wedding planning, is nothing short of a miracle. One would think that the murder investigation would be front and center, yet Clemens manages to keep it in the background while she attends to all these other distractions, some related, some not, without raising the impatient reader’s hackles—no mean task, but she pulls it off with aplomb.
Crown, the no nonsense Harley riding dairy farmer, and her fiancée Nick are at the Fair when a girl’s screams lead Stella to the discovery of the singer’s body. Unimpressed with the police investigation, the cantankerous Crown has some suspicions of her own, but these take a back seat to questions about the 4-H calf and cow judging contests, where over the years a local record mogul has been buying champions as ringers to enter for his family. It gets even more complicated when his cows get mysteriously sick, her veterinarian buddy seems overwhelmed and is accused of incompetence, and there are strange goings on around the Lovely Miss Pennsylvania Pageant. All these dots may have some connection, but, as you would expect from any good mystery writer, those dots are kept apart through the bulk of the narrative.
Clemens creates more than enough interest in her broad cast of characters to keep readers happily distracted from the central crime. There are the teenage jealousies and romances of a variety of 4-H exhibitors. There are the Lovely Miss contestants, natural beauties and man-made, and their pushy mothers. There are the ‘salt of the earth’ locals and the ‘city slicker’ outsiders, and the author brings them all to life with broad strokes, even if at times some of them seem stereotyped.
Perhaps the crowning (no pun intended) achievement in characterization, other than Stella herself, is sister-in-law to be Miranda Hathaway. Everything that Stella is, Miranda is the opposite. Miranda is a big wedding, day at the spa, cosmetics, and gown kind of person. Stella is jeans and cow flop; her idea of a wedding is a few good friends and some beer. Miranda is a woman who can’t take no for an answer; the only word Stella seems to know is no. Conflict and hurt feelings are both inevitable and amusing, at least for the reader. It is the kind of personal interaction that humanizes a character like Stella.
Set in the dairy country of Eastern Pennsylvania, Clemens paints a convincing picture of the kind of rural community where the annual county fair is the biggest event of the year. Whether she is describing the calf judging, the combine demolition derby, or the fair’s food tent with its fried pickles, fried burgers, fried dough and fried. . .(you get the idea), there is always the sense that this is an author who knows what she’s talking about.
Leave Tomorrow Behind is an entertaining read even if you’re not especially into Holsteins.