Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Small Town Trouble by Jean Erhardt

Book: Small Town Trouble
Author: Jean Erhardt
Publisher: Two Terriers Press

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley
The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Edgar Allan Poe unleashed the very model of the modern murder mystery when his short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, was published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841. His protagonist, C. Auguste Dupin, is universally credited as being detective zero, and the literary conventions he created are still used as the foundation for mystery writing. But much has changed in the 173 years since Poe poked the world of literature with a razor-wielding Ourang-Outang. In fact, writers routinely challenge his conventions and tropes, and seek to find new and more devious ways for murder and mayhem to abound.

And, much to our good fortune, the lesbian fiction genre is chock-full of quality mysteries, and populated by characters who have become both familiar and revered in our culture. Browse any brick and mortar or online bookstore, and you will find the shelves lined with the trials and travails, and loves and losses of stalwart women like Micky Knight, Kate Delafield, Jane Lawless, Lillian Byrd, Lindsay Gordon, Carol Ashton, Kit O’Malley, Jude Devine, Kate Ryan, Maggie Gale, Rainey Bell, Delta Stevens, Calli Barnow, and L.A. Franco.

I’ll even throw in Mabel Maney’s sweet, sassy, and smokin’ hot one-two punch of Nancy Clue and Cherry Aimless for good measure. 

While each of these memorable characters routinely finds herself smack dab in the middle of some ne’re-do-well’s dastardly deed, the authors who pen them have found fresh ways to challenge Poe’s foundation in order to keep us on our toes and entertained for hours. That’s where the fun comes in, because I hazard to guess that most readers really haven’t stopped to consider the vast diversity of mysteries available.

Let’s start with the Police Procedural: These are generally cases investigated by law enforcement professionals using factual police operations. They often describe many of the activities the police undertake in solving a crime, and employ tricks of the trade like forensics, autopsies, search warrants, informants, interrogations, and interviews to gather and process the evidence needed for an arrest. A fun twist to these mysteries is that the Big Bad is not always a known quantity at the beginning of the book.

Next up is the Private Eye: The private investigator is a licensed and bonded crusader for justice and honor. She often feels compelled to defend those in need of help, especially the most vulnerable among us, including children, puppies, and saucy vixens with legs up to “there”. Authors sometimes overlay this sub-genre with noir, a delightful little French term, which really means that their stories serve up a hearty helping of gore, brutality, lust, and sexual exploitation to advance the plot. This is why so many PIs in literature fall victim to self-destructive tendencies, questionable decision-making, and bad relationship choices.

From there, we look into the Amateur Sleuth:  In these mysteries the protagonist has a regular day job—usually something that doesn’t require accountability or regular hours. However, sometimes she is independently wealthy, with an abundance of time on her hands. Occasionally, the amateur sleuth actually works in a job that offers her unique knowledge and experience—which is precisely why one should never accept employment with a nosey horse trainer, caterer, or herbalist.

Regardless of who is actually ferreting out the clues in our favorite mysteries, the reader will invariably encounter yet another layer of sub-genres. These include Suspense, Romantic Suspense, Intrigue, Historical, Whodunits, and Capers. Each one has a special set of requirements that sets them apart from the others, such as fighting for one’s own survival, striving for love and justice, piecing together a curious puzzle, or bumbling into the big reveal.

And while so many among us extol the virtues of the formulaic romance—because we all need a good love story now and then—mystery is, by definition, anything but formulaic. Mystery remains fresh, and interesting, and different because of the diversity of characters and layers of intricacy involved in each and every one.

It’s all about the mix and match metaphor.

Cue author, Jean Erhardt, and her brash and bawdy caper, Small Town Trouble. Kim Claypoole’s mother, Evelyn, is courting financial disaster, so Kim reluctantly leaves the safety of her Gatlinburg doublewide, her avant-garde restaurant, and her married, Republican paramour to return to her hometown to help out.  But something fishy is happening in Fogerty, Ohio. Kim arrives to find her nearly bankrupt mother has been offered an ungodly sum of money for a backwoods radio station by a man who doesn’t exist, and the owner of the local Gentlemen’s bar has been found dead with his winky excised. Kim obsesses about her over-permed girlfriend, but is reacquainted with Amy, her best friend/crush from high school. Things escalate when Kim’s cousin, Abbott, is found dead with his winky M.I.A., and Amy’s dim-witted brother, Rick-Rod, is fingered for the dastardly deed.  

The dynamic duo begins to search for clues into the connection between the mysterious moneyman and the murderous winky thief. Along the way, they encounter a bevy of topless tavern dancers, small town cops, a well-connected felon, and an unplanned meeting with the Grim Reaper. Will Kim and Amy find the REAL killer, and free Rick-Rod from the hoosgow? Will Evelyn find a way to forestall foreclosure on her beloved Gone With The Wind prefab? Will remaining cousins, Alonzo and Agee, remain at the oars of WFOG?

Erhardt’s Small Town Trouble is a classic Amateur Sleuth Caper. It calls out to the inveterately curious among us, and gives voice to our affinity for gossip, our desire to dig below the surface, and our need to winnow out information that really is none of our business. Kim Claypoole is affable but not a pushover; adventurous but not stupid; and wisecracking but not sarcastic. Amy is a willing and able sidekick, while Evelyn, Alonzo, and Agee are unintentional foils. The local police could either help or hinder, and as much as things have changed since Kim left home, they have remained the same. Kim is a local, but she is also an outsider.

Small Town Trouble benefits greatly from the first-person narrative, and allows the reader to live vicariously through the waggish Kim Claypoole. Her mistakes come from naïveté and lack of experience, but never a lack of intelligence or consideration.  She is involved in the mystery, and remains tenacious in the face of danger because it is personal to her and her family. Even though she views her kin as cartoonish crackers, her involvement in finding the mysterious moneyman and the murderous winky bandit comes from authentic emotion. And, like most amateur sleuths and interfering busybodies, she asks questions of the wrong people, and finds herself and her sidekick threatened by the Big Bad when they least expect it. This results in a pulse-pounding reveal that brings all elements of the mystery back into heavenly alignment.

Author Jean Erhardt
Not all mysteries are or should be the same, and each should be considered unto itself.

Jean Erhardt’s Small Town Trouble is a fresh and fun example of a textbook amateur sleuth caper—the characters have personality, the plot is conceivable, the pacing is quick, the dialogue is solid, and the humor abounds. My first read left me with concerns about the plausibility of why the Big Bad was a Big Bad, but my second read through allowed me to toss that problem out the door, and simply enjoy the mystery. Small Town Trouble is bright and playful, and leaves me with a desire to see what Kim Claypoole is up to in her next adventure, Deep Trouble, due out in spring of 2014.

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