Most of the suggestions I get for new/old reads come from fellow bloggers, which can lead to exciting discoveries. Sure, a lot of time is expended trying to resuscitate some British guys who wrote 700 novels and then vanished into obscurity. And there’s a wealth of potential crime queens who wrote pure gold, maybe two or three of them, before turning their eyes to something “more respectable” (marriage? Military biographies?) Or maybe you’re brought face to face with mysteries from another country or culture, and you spend hours navigating the exquisite tension between what is familiar and what is fascinatingly exotic and new.
I think a lot of bloggers get a special kick out of bringing something really obscure out into the light for all to see. Two bloggers I know specialize in this, and the really frustrating thing is that so much of what they review is both tantalizing to behold and rare in the extreme. John Norris at Pretty Sinister Books has been dealing in books since 1999. He specializes in a variety of genre fiction, but most of the mysteries he writes about make me drool and the knowledge he imparts about the authors and publications is invaluable (and frustrating when you see a book you simply cannot have!) Meanwhile, TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time focuses on impossible crime mysteries of every sort and is determined to cover every title in Robert Adey’s lexicon of locked room mysteries and more.
It was TomCat who set the course for my post today. I am not a science fiction reader, so the name of Jack Vance didn’t amount to much more than a name popping off the shelves of the section I have to walk past to get to the mysteries in my favorite bookstore. I’m proud to say he was a local boy, a fourth generation San Franciscan. He was prolific and diverse, penning several fantasy and science fiction series. I wouldn’t have associated him with my favorite genre if not for reading TomCat’s review, but Vance actually wrote over a dozen mysteries, including three of the novels that were published under the authorial cover of “Ellery Queen” but which had nothing to do with the fictional detective. (One of these, a locked room mystery called A Room to Die In, is widely considered one of the better of these efforts.)
In 1966 – 67, Vance made extensive use of his home-grown California status by writing two books set in that part of the Bay Area beyond San Jose that is dotted with small towns. I find it quite ironic that in a period where Agatha Christie was struggling to update herself with the swinging Carnaby Street mystery Third Girl and the psychological thriller Endless Night, Vance managed to hurtle us back in a time machine to an old time world of villages and mysterious foul play. Not that these are in any way historical mysteries: Vance sets The Fox Valley Murders and The Pleasant Grove Murders firmly in the modern world of the mid-60’s, when even small California towns were feeling the pull to tear down the old world and replace it with something unrecognizable.
This struggle forms the backdrop of The Fox Valley Murders, which introduces us to Joe Bain, once a wild boy, who cleaned up his act when he started a family. Now widowed, he and his teenaged daughter Miranda live with his mom in Pleasant Grove, and he works as a deputy to the San Rodrigo County sheriff.
Or, at least, he was a deputy until Sheriff Ernest (“Cooch”) Cucchinello got drunk and fell into an empty swimming pool. Now Joe is the acting sheriff for three months until election time, when the younger, handsome, slick attorney Lee Gervase, who is running unopposed on a progressive platform, is widely expected to be a sheriff who will change things for the better in this town.
I haven’t even mentioned the mystery part yet, and I already love this book. I’m a sucker for a good David and Goliath story, so the moment I met Lee Gervase, I figured he was no good and that somebody had to stand up to the guy. And Vance creates the perfect Everyman hero in a guy named Joe. At the start he’s a simple good man who doesn’t waste too much time forming strong opinions of the people around him. Gervase is part of a movement by developers to tear down the Municipal Building, an architectural curiosity at best, and construct something big and bland and useful. All Joe can do is shrug and comment that he has always liked the building’s quirkiness.
But stepping into Cooch’s drunken and admittedly corrupt shoes lights a spark in Joe, a basic desire to clean things up in the Sheriff’s office and give back to the community that has given him a second chance to make good. On a whim, Joe puts his name on the ballot for sheriff. He’s going to have a tough time campaigning: Gervase has the backing of most of the local press and business leaders, and he projects a fresh, clean image, even though Joe suspects that Gervase sees the office of sheriff as a quick stepping stone toward state and national prominence. Joe’s friends don’t take his ambitions too seriously, remembering the good ol’ boy he used to be. Even his daughter hopes he loses so that they would be free to travel.
And then Ausley Wyett comes home.
Sixteen years earlier, little Tissie McAllister was walking home from school when she was hailed by big, awkward Ausley Wyett, who invited her into his barn to look at some new kittens. When Tissie never returned home, her worried father grabbed a neighbor and went looking. What they found would start the process of sending Ausley to San Quentin for murdering Tissie.
And now, Ausley has been released for good behavior. He moves back into his home, the sole survivor of his family, and sends letters to the five men whose testimony helped convict him.
I am now out of jail, where I have served sixteen long years. I could write a long book on the dreadful experiences I have witnessed. How do you plan to make this up to me? I await your response with great interest.
Joe is contacted by one of these witnesses and asked to do something about Ausley. And it isn’t long before his task becomes finding out whether or not Mr. Wyett is killing his former tormentors, one by one, in ways that look like accidents but have the distinct Golden Age tinge of an impossible crime. How could the old bus driver drop dead so conveniently at his own front door before Joe’s own eyes? How could the mushroom aficionado make himself a final meal with deadly toadstools? Who shot the hunter when witnesses confirm that nobody else was in the vicinity at the time of death? Who plunged the man off a ladder to a 60-foot drop in front of his own wife when there was nobody around?
Joe Bain’s methods of detection are pure home-spun. Much of our time is spent driving around with Joe from town to town – each one of them a distinctly drawn village – as he reflects on what he knows and what he thinks. This is interspersed with a variety of scenes as a multitude of small-town folk come to life and play their part in Joe’s investigation.
For every advance he makes, Joe faces a delightful assortment of obstacles, from witnesses who get violent with him to a sultry ex-girlfriend, now wife of a suspect, who makes a play for him and then cries rape when she gets caught. My favorite is a woman who quickly becomes Joe’s nemesis: Mrs. Rostvolt, the Sheriff’s secretary, a loathsome woman who might have her finger in some significant pies and makes Joe’s job harder with each passing day.
Through it all, Acting Sheriff Bain uses plain decency and common sense to advance his search for the truth, all of it complicated by the need to protect Ausley, a man he doesn’t even like much and who might be guilty, from the increasing anger of the townsfolk as, one by one, their neighbors die. It all culminates in a marvelous climactic reveal, except that instead of the library, all the suspects are gathered at an election rally in the town square where Bain proves once and for all whether he’s got what it takes to be elected sheriff.
And while I don’t want to spoil anything, it should be obvious that he succeeds in that goal (the mystery has to be solved, right?) when you turn to the sequel The Pleasant Grove Murders, and see now-for-real Sheriff Bain in all his glory.
Well, glory is pushing it, as we shall see. But the second mystery featuring Bain does not immediately begin with the Sheriff. Rather, it goes back a few years and introduces us to some of the well-to-do residents of a community living next to the Pleasant Grove golf course. Vance sets aside the simple prose style to offer a mordant character study of the members of two distinguished familes and their neighbors. (It reminded me a little bit of Knot’s Landing, my favorite nighttime TV soap of the 80’s.)
The highest status goes to the Shortridge family, owners of the leading department store in town, who are the cultural beacons of the neighborhood. Their snobbery has been inherited in spades by their son Marsh, a nasty prig, and their daughter Starr, who believes she is better than everybody, especially Bill Whipple, the son of a local garage owner who has risen above his station by purchasing a home down the street. And then there are the Benjamins, recent arrivals with a little girl named Alice who is Starr’s age and preternaturally beautiful.
In two deft chapters, Vance introduces a complex web of feelings between all these people, as the kids grow into high schoolers under the leadership of Principal Hubman and his showy wife Laura, who are also neighbors. Tensions involving romantic, sexual and class-based feelings rise throughout, but the first victim turns out to be none of these people. Instead, Ken Mooney, son of a rancher, former classmate, and best friend to Bill Whipple has been hit repeatedly over the head with a hammer while delivering the mail to the neighborhood.
Joe Bain is called in to investigate, and once again we return to the rhythms of investigation from the first novel. There are no impossible crimes here; instead, the Sheriff has to piece together when exactly Ken died, and why. As Howard Griselda, local news editor and Joe’s nemesis, puts it, “Seems to me the basic question here is: did the murderer kill Ken Mooney, or did he kill the postman?”
It’s a wonderful question to start with. Ken had been known to be something of a ladies’ man, but he was liked by all. Had he possessed something in his mail truck that was desperately sought by the killer? Did his death have to do with the old roadhouse his father had purchased and which Ken was halfheartedly refurbishing? Did Ken have something on one of his old school friends or a parent? Or did someone merely need his mail truck badly enough to bash him over the head?
Once again, the sheriff drives all over the place -or picks up the phone at the office or home – to question suspects and witnesses, and his exchanges are both human and witty. A great example comes from his mild interrogation of Ken’s boss, the postmaster:
“I’m wondering if there might have been some kind of mail delivered along Madrone way that was, well, outrageous or scandalous.”
Deardorf stated that the mail delivered along Madrone Way and all throughout Pleasant Grove was so inoffensive as to be insipid.
“Is there some kind of mail that people might feel guilty about receiving?”
Deardorf spoke with patient reasonableness: “If they kill the post office employees they will not receive this mail, so they are defeating their own purposes.”
“I was thinking about mail someone hadn’t been expecting – a post card from a girl friend, or say a fan letter from Fidel, something of the sort.”
“Anything’s possible,” said Deardorf, “but if you think we sit around the post office driking hot chocolate and reading post cards you’re wrong.”
As in his last case, while Bain pursues the solution to the case, he also still has to deal with issues pertaining to his office, especially from Griselda, who has no faith in the sheriff’s old-school style. Another possible mole may exist in his office, leaking information about actions Bain has taken which might seem like improprieties but are really evidence of Joe’s essential humanity. Various crises come and go. And one call that Joe answers results in him meeting a beautiful woman named Luna, who may be a possible object of romance if the Sheriff can accept certain oddities about her – such as her belief that she is an alien emissary from the planet Arthemisia.
It’s another entertaining read, but for me Pleasant Grove isn’t quite the successful visit that Fox Valley was. Bain doesn’t put together the solution so much as stumble upon the truth of the situation. Even as he explains it all in another dramatically placed denouement, I couldn’t help but feeling that perhaps Howard Griselda wasn’t completely wrong, that Joe Bain might want to start mixing his homespun instincts with some sharper police work. Of course, that’s not the point. For years on TV, Andy Griffith proved that good old-fashioned common sense plus a healthy dose of humanity and humor made a man a better sheriff than all those officers up in Raleigh with their newfangled ways could ever be. And the solution is just fine, particularly in how it lends some pathos to the death of poor Ken Mooney. True, it all feels a bit dated now, but – come on! If you’re into reading old mysteries, that feeling is going to come upon you more often than not. It adds to the charm.
And I’m probably griping because – that’s it. No more Joe Bain. Oh sure, you can dig up Vance’s treatment of a third book, The Genesee Slough Murders, which TomCat teasingly informs us sounds like it would have been the best one yet. Unfortunately, and for reasons we may never know, Jack Vance abandoned his own mystery series. It’s a loss to all of us who love good writing and good plotting that we can’t have a whole row of Joe Bain mysteries on our shelves. But that’s the risk you take when you start to uncover this stuff.