Welcome to Maggody, Arkansas, the very definition of a small town in the middle of nowhere. A town that people want to leave but rarely do – due to a lack of ability or opportunity. A town where half the population have the same surname, a lot of people are… how shall we put it, closely related to one another, often in more than one way. Rather than a family tree, think of a family tangle.
Arly Hanks is one of the few people to leave who actually came back, as Sheriff of the town, although most of her duties are dealing with speeders and the occasional drunk. But when a local EPA officer vanishes on his way to deliver his report on local water quality, an escaped violent convict seems to be making his way back to town and a barmaid is killed with a crossbow, it looks like she’s going to have her hands full.
One of my personal challenges this year is to revisit some blog themes that have fallen by the wayside over the years and this ticks two boxes in that respect. One was to take a look at some of the US “cozy” genre again – you know the ones I mean – and one was to revisit the books of Joan Hess.
Joan Hess, who passed away in November 2017, was a prolific writer of mystery fiction, with twenty books in her Claire Malloy series – the first three, Strangled Prose, The Murder At The Murder At The Mimosa Inn and Dear Miss Demeanour, I reviewed three years ago – and sixteen books centred around Arly Hanks and Maggody, along with a few other bits and bobs. For example, she completed the final Elizabeth Peters Amelia Peabody mystery.
The Claire Malloy series was reprinted in the UK recently by Bello Books but I don’t think the Maggody books have had a paperback printing over here – they are available as ebooks but as surprisingly pricey ones – oddly, £6.02. Why the 2p? Presumably, it’s an exchange rate thing. Anyway, I got my copy from a second hand shop for £2 a couple of years ago…
It’s an odd book. Maggody doesn’t resonate as a place you’d want to visit – you can almost hear the duelling banjos in the background. You find yourself not quite believing that the author lived in that state, as this is about as convincing a reason to visit the place as David Mark’s books are to visit Hull. Also the main plot of the book – not a spoiler, as it occurs very early – is that the EPA guy is kidnapped by the town council, in a plan that generally seems stupider than the average episode of the Dukes Of Hazzard. The majority of the characters seem to have morals that range from dubious to bottom-of-the-sewer, with the exception of Arly and her presumably love-interest colleague. But what isn’t part of the main plot is the murder.
The murder almost seems levered in at the last minute, with the characters barely mentioning it until the finale, concerned with finding the EPA guy for most of the time. They don’t even know that the convict has shown up until late on, so you’d think a murder would take priority, no? And with point of view scenes from a good number of the cast, it’s clear that the two events, no matter how involved some characters were with the victim, as pretty unrelated.
But given that, the murder does have a good clue in it and a well-hidden murderer, and, at the end of the day, the book is an enjoyable enough read. I think I prefer the Claire Malloy series, as I prefer her sarcastic narration, but I wouldn’t be adverse to a return visit to this series at some point.
One thing though – despite the style of the book cover and the blurb, this may be funny (at times) but it’s not cozy. Sweary at times and with some fairly crude language concerning sex (from admittedly a fairly crude character), it might put some people off. It’s no Stuart MacBride, but even so.
So, you could do a lot worse than taking a look at this, but be clear what you’re getting – a backwoods crime romp (that isn’t quite as funny as it thinks it is) with a decent mystery short story being intermittently dealt with. Worth A Look.