By Benjamin Jones
Should crime fighting be left to the professionals? Is there a place for amateur sleuths in today’s world? There are two sides to the story. As Evan Hunter has pointed out, the only persons who would properly be investigating a murder in real life are police detectives. Private investigators handle divorces and insurance cases. Lawyers don’t have the time to go traipsing around dark alleys in search of clues- they have cases to try. And forget priests. Would you confess your sins to a man who regularly handed criminals over to the authorities?
So yes, you do have to suspend your disbelief a bit with fictional detectives who do not carry the title “Detective.” For one thing, a series of murder mystery novels will put this untrained person in contact with Death over and over again, and thus could be expected to traumatize said character into catatonia. On the other hand, a detective from another walk of life can introduce the reader to different places, different people, different scenes, man. In recent decades, several authors have done fascinating things with exotic amateur detectives. These include Ellis Peters’s Cadfael (Medieval Welsh herbalist monk), Annette Meyers’s Olivia Brown (Jazz Age poet), and George Chesbro’s Mongo (circus performing little person and occultist).
And this brings us to Marianne Weber’s Summerkill. The novel introduces a potential series character named Valerie Wyckoff, better known as “Val.” Val is a landscape architect, a profession which usually doesn’t involve looking at corpses. Except dead trees, sometimes.
The most reliable way to get a civilian involved in a murder mystery is to turn her into either a suspect or a target. Here, the first path is followed. Val is at home watching her nephews, Alex and Galen, as they watch TV. When she goes out the next morning to take out the trash, as Alex refused to do, she finds a corpse on her lawn. It turns out to be the chief bean counter at the Garden Center, a big local firm for whom she consults. As he’s been subtly chiseling her customers to increase company profits, he’s enough of a thorn in her side to provide motive. A lot of people don’t like her to begin with. That much easier to stigmatize her and her family. So she starts her own investigation.
Speaking for myself, I do like Val Wyckoff. She has a sense of humor. She’s not self-pitying despite a hard knock life that includes a grabby stepfather and an ice-cold mother. When she makes love to a man (I won’t say which) for the first time, she apologizes for being “a little tight. It’s been a while.” And a likeable heroine can take a book pretty far.
The setting is fairly well realized. Fairhaven is an urban sprawl village in upstate New York. So far upstate that everybody drinks Molson. Interesting bits of town history are dropped in here and there. The Garden Center’s crowning achievement, a country club with a flat-topped hill, has some nasty stuff stored under it, and the tale of how it got there is revealed well.
There’s some “small town, small minds” stuff, which isn’t new. It’s also not an absolute in the book.
Valerie Wyckoff is not yet on the shortlist of great amateurs, but Weber’s story is still mighty involving.