Coachwhip has once again brought a completely new to me author to my attention. Carolyn Thomas was the penname for Actea Duncan, who met her husband in the adult education class he taught, a point which becomes more interesting when you read the book.
The story is narrated by Gail Rawson who goes to the small rundown gold mining village of Glory Cloud in Colorado. She is going there not just to work on her MA thesis about a local writer, who used to live there, but she is also going to help her university advisor, Dr Dahlberg. Dahlberg is planning on going to the same village to do research on the local, now defunct narrow gauge railroad, whose past is full of scandal, death and corruption. Unsurprisingly Dahlberg is about as popular as leprosy in the village and his ability to annoy other people doesn’t help matters either. So we all know who is going to get bumped off… Yet for all that the first death is indeed unexpected and certainly puts Gail and her new local love interest, Jeff Calhoun, in a very awkward situation. In fact they become prime suspects and the local Sheriff is far from sympathetic. The locals also begin to close ranks, realising there is perhaps too much at stake to offer any help. Does this have anything to do with the railway crash in 1921? Gail and Jeff decide that they must solve the case themselves to save their own necks.
I haven’t fully made my mind up about the puzzle aspect of this book. On first reading the solution I felt a bit swizzed, as there was one piece of information which the reader has no access to and which blew the motive wide open. Though perhaps US readers will have a slight advantage in one respect. Equally the case focuses on a lot on questioning people in regards to events which happened in 1921, as opposed to events in the present day, even when one of the local inhabitants disappears. But as I gave the solution further thought and listened to the characters detailing how they solved the case I annoyingly saw how there was a long trail of small and seemingly inconsequential clues which led up to culprit. So perhaps my final conclusion on this aspect of the plot is that you just need to be smarter than me, (probably not too tricky a challenge) to notice these things and figure out what they mean. There is one piece of misdirection which I felt a little unfair, but then again that might just be me.
But moving from my points of ambiguity to some definite positives, I loved the opening of the story as Gail makes the hazardous journey to Glory Cloud, driven by a very gung-ho driver: ‘this 1937 Ford with delusions of being a mountain goat, [was] driven by this hardy character with delusions of immortality.’ What a great sentence! I also really enjoyed the mini milieu of academia in the story as the comment makes a number of understated comments on the gender divide in this arena. Dahlberg of course has unreasonable expectations of what he can ask Gail to do in terms of work load and is very much more of a talker than a listener, (he only does the latter when it is in his interest). He also probably wouldn’t be above a spot of mansplaining. Perhaps it was a good job he got murdered when he did. Now wouldn’t that be one heck of a motive for murder… “Well officer he just wouldn’t stop explaining things I already knew, so I just had to shoot him…” Of course Gail doesn’t out and out condemn Dahlberg’s way of doing things but there is a sense of her being less than pleased with it. Many of the characters assume there is some kind of romantic connection between Dahlberg and Gail, which reminded me of Thomas’ own marital background. Though in this scenario there is definitely nothing going on between the professor and his student.
Looking at Gail herself, I had a mixed reaction to her. She initially gave me the hump by making comments such as ‘I was already too slim’ or my ‘long legs and slim hips’ meant I looked really great in slacks. Is it just me or do these type of comments never make the speaker of them particularly appealing? Thankfully she forgets her physique long enough to crack on with the case, which meant she kind of grew on me. She makes plenty of HIBK rooky errors, though she does spot a very subtle embroidery based clue. Despite being the one who finally puts all the pieces together and correctly identifies the culprit, Gail does somewhat let herself down at the end of book when her response to Jeff making a quip to the Sheriff to about marriage keeping her out of mischief is: ‘They didn’t bother to ask my opinion. That was all right too. I was ready and willing to be kept out of more mischief. And I must say for Jeff that he’s pretty well managed it.’ Oh Gail! Let’s hope she got to finish her MA…
In terms of the suspect group I thought it interesting that aside from Jeff and Gail, the characters are pretty much middle aged and older. Though interestingly Thomas still allows flutters of romance to be had, as normally in fiction love is the prerogative of the young. The way the community turns against Jeff and Gail is well handled in the piece as it is all done so politely and reasonably, that it makes it hard for the two of them to rail against it. The fact many parts of their sleuthing only serve to make themselves look even guiltier was an unusual twist on the amateur sleuthing trope.
So a bit of a mixed read but my final verdict is definitely still in favour of it. The mountainous gold mining setting is appealing and used effectively in the mystery and I think it is certainly a novel which provokes reaction within the reader. The central puzzle will also keep your brain firmly taxed for an afternoon and hopefully you’ll do a lot better than me!
Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip Publications)
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Crime Solving Duo