Monthly Archives: February 2017

Small Town Lies

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Texas Hill Country. Thanks to xtri.com

I was stymied when my niece moved her family to a small town in the Texas Hill Country some years ago. Why would anyone leave the Bay Area for a couple acres of scrub oak and a pickup truck in a town so small you’ve missed it if you yawn? Not that I have anything against small towns. I grew up in Ross so long ago it still retained a small town character. We knew everybody, and people looked out for each other. Eddie’s Ross Grocery and the Sunday social in the Rectory after church were rich in gossip. Officer Flowers kept the peace and investigated crimes—usually something to do with petty theft.

But still—my family has taken up residence in a small town several states away? I didn’t get it—that is, until I discovered Terry Shames’s delightful mystery series set in a small Texas town.

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Congratulations!

Shames won the Macavity Award for best first novel in 2013 for A Killing at Cotton Hill, the first Samuel Craddock mystery set in Jarrett Creek. She has since published The Last Death of Jack Harbin, Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, and The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake, all chronicling the slow as molasses lifestyle and the dark secrets festering below the veneer of peacefulness of this sleepy town.

Shames’s fascination with the town where her grandfather was mayor and where she grew up is clear through her precise documentation of the details of small town life in Jarrett Creek. She’s created a cast of characters that could represent any small American town, yet are inextricably bound to Jarrett Creek, starting with the hero, Samuel Craddock. He’s an unpretentious widower, the town’s retired police chief, who has been called out of retirement after Jarrett Creek runs out of money. He’s old fashioned and gentlemanly, prefers the company of women and his cattle, and is at home sipping lemonade and eating berry-filled buns in his neighbor, Loretta’s, kitchen while she gossips about everyone in town. In fact, she’s a prime source of intelligence when Craddock is investigating a murder.

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It’s Loretta who has her finger on the pulse of the town when Nonie Blake returns to Jarrett Creek after a twenty-year stint in a private mental institution. She’d tried to hang her little sister when she was fourteen. Loretta declares, “She was a dangerous girl and she’ll be a dangerous woman.” Within a week, Nonie turns up dead in the Blake family’s stock pond and Chief Craddock finds few clues. One thing is certain, Nonie was murdered and her reclusive family remains tight-lipped about her, the committal, and why she had come home.

Samuel Craddock’s method of investigation is  from the old school. He’s stumped, and he’s saddled with a rookie cop, Maria Trevino, who comes with attitude and ideas about how police work should be done. Trevino wants to look for hard evidence using methods that make Craddock uncomfortable and worse, make him feel old. He begins to question himself and fears he’s losing his edge to age. It takes some detecting but the two (and a little dog) uncover the layers of lies and cover-ups that go back a generation to finally reveal why Nonie Blake’s murder was necessary.

I fell in love with Samuel Craddock and Jarrett Creek in A Killing at Cotton Hill and the feeling has persisted through five books.  It’s the authentic small-town vibe and the folksy dialog combined with Shames’s adept ability to plot a surprising and quirky murder investigation, coupled with her masterful characterization that makes the series shine. I feel like I’ve lived in Jarrett Creek—and now my darling (and only) niece and her brood (dogs included) live there.

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To read my entire review, please visit:

The Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 32, No. 34, Winter 2016-2017

And be sure to catch up with Terry Shames. Book 6 of the Samuel Craddock Series has just come out:

Excerpted from the Publishers Weekly:  New crime novels delve into policing’s sordid underbelly, merging classic genre themes with zeitgeisty plots By Jordan Foster, Nov 18, 2016 unsettling-crime-thumb

 

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My Valentine

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Last night while my husband and I watched the Best of Antiques Road Show, I suffered a serious sugar Jones. I twitched and squirmed, fighting the itch, but when that dear old fellow from Pensacola brought out his grandmother’s collection of cookie jars, I had to eat something sweet.

“I think I’ll put the dinner dishes in the dishwasher,” I said and slithered to the kitchen. David wasn’t paying any attention to me so I tiptoed into the pantry to see what I could find. There’s a stash of goodies tucked behind the canned tomatoes, a place David never goes.

 I forget about this hidey-hole most of the time, especially since I’ve been tracking everything I eat, but the urge for sweets had reached beyond my resistance. I opened the pantry door, flipped on the light, and inched myself into the former half-bath now painted bright orange and fitted with an Elfa shelving system. Past the cookbooks and extra shopping bags. Past the flat of V8 juice and containers of Comet cleanser. Past the two bales of paper towels (we both brought home a supply from Costco last week). I reached my trembling hand into the shelves. I felt over the beans, the tuna, the mushrooms and way into a corner darker than the shadow of Sonoma Mountain. I felt behind the crushed tomatoes with basil, the tomato garlic puree, and the diced tomatoes with chipotle. I nudged the edge of a paper bag and tugged. It pulled free and bounced across the tops of the cans and into the light. Candy!

“Ana, you should see this,” David yelled from the living room.

“I can’t hear you,” I called back, stalling as I peeked into the stash.

Hmmm. Unwrapped peppermints from before written history. Tiny bags of spicy tamarind candy we got with our check at that place we ate lunch in Mexico City three years before. Half a Figamajig that looked like the rats may have enjoyed the other half (you remember the rats in the walls?) One cornhusk-wrapped mystery candy from the local Mexican market.

Bingo!

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Two boxes of NECCO Sweethearts Conversation Hearts addressed: “To: Teacher      From:   Marisela” a Valentine gift saved from our class celebration last year—because I don’t really like them. But I was desperate. I took one box and pushed the rest of the stash back behind the cans.

You remember those chalky-sweet pastel hearts that come in not quite distinct flavors that we used to give and get in grade school? The ones with catchy sayings stamped on them like BE MINE, MY VALENTINE, LOVE YA and BABY BOY. Well, they’re still around and have some new messages. How about BFF or TOP CHEF or RECIPE 4 LOVE?

I sat back down on the couch, tore into the box and popped a brown MY GIRL heart into my mouth—sweet, but not exactly chocolate. Just like I remembered.

“What are you eating?”

“Valentine’s candy,” I said and passed a blue ROCK OUT over.

“Is this a hint?”

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“Let’s go out for dinner this year. Maybe to De Schmire.” I dropped a pink DRESS UP into his outstretched hand and displayed a green GLAM before eating it.

He handed the pink heart back and suggested Cucina Paradiso.

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“We went there for our anniversary.” I reminded him. “I’m in the mood for French.”

David helped himself to the box of candy hearts, dumped it out on top of his Sudoku book and sifted with his forefinger until he found the message he wanted— a purple POSH—showed me then ate it. I grabbed a pink one with a slightly garbled message, SO WHAT it looked like, and displayed it.

“You have a tux,” I joked.

He studied the remaining messages and selected SPICE IT UP. “How about Thai. We could go to Sea on the Boulevard.”

I ate several orange hearts in a row: TAKE A WALK, LOSER, WISE UP.

“De Schmire serves French onion soup,” I said, cajoling. David flipped a yellow I CARE heart into my lap. It fell onto the floor and the dog sniffed it then turned her head away. I don’t like the yellow ones very much either—banana. I spied a white TABLE 4 TWO and flicked it back at him.

A purple PLEASE ME flew at me.

I tossed back a yellow NO WAY.

David handed me a green SWEET TALK.

I responded with a blue MY TREAT.

“Ok, you win.” He threw up his hands. “De Schmire it is.” He made a reservation through his Droid. “But I don’t want to dress up.” He handed me a images

I passed him a pink OK and gave him a smooch.

I’m saving the white I LOVE YOU for Valentine’s Day.

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First published by the Petaluma Post February, 2011

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Modern Misterios Set in Silicon Valley

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Read it today!

I believe in serendipity. Throughout the late summer I consumed novels set in Spain in anticipation of my trip. Guidebooks are great for seeing the sights, but novels capture the national character and identify the flavor of a place. Among the books I read were two police procedurals by Antonio Hill and three of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by Carlos Ruis Zafón. I noticed something labyrinthine and dark about all the books I read. I imagined Spain as the backdrop for a Gothic novel. Then, just before leaving for Barcelona, I had the opportunity to read the manuscript of Blood Allegiance. As I read this bone chilling crime novel set in Silicon Valley, I felt pulled into a dark world of exotic secrets, overwrought emotions, and tingling suspense. This modern-day police procedural—for me—a metonymy for gloom and horror, that is until the end. Could these crimes happen here? I was again reminded of Gothic tales, and I was sucked right in.

As it turned out, there’s a good reason why Elin Barnes’s novel reminded me of the Spanish writers. She’s from Madrid. Blood Allegiance contains elements of modern Gothic fiction: rationality vs. irrationality, guilt, strangeness within the familiar, monsters (human ones in this book), and abjection. What a master of suspense, twisting her plot in surprising directions as it weaves around the central story creating a maze of relationships, motivations, violence, and secrets: the lead Santa Clara criminalist is found dismembered at a local restaurant and the crime scene is tagged with gang graffiti. Detective Darcy Lynch (who we know from the first two books in this series) is wading into unknown territory when he’s sent on loan to CATCH, the Cross-Agency Tactical California Homicide Unit. But the case carries more weight for Darcy than apprehending the man who slaughtered a colleague. If he fails, he won’t be reassigned to the task force and his career could be over.
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Another member of the unit is gunned down and a drone crashes into a San Jose Police Department helicopter turning the case into a bloody disaster. Lynch must stop one, or two, of the most vicious California gangs before they execute his entire team.

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The characterization is multilayered. Protagonist, Darcy Lynch, and antagonist, Oscar Amaro are complex and individualized. Both are damaged and both have the capacity for “getting the job done” at whatever cost, yet are imbued with deep humanity. The surprise ending showcases these two characters as clouded mirrors of each other. The secondary characters are also rounded: Sorenson, Lynch’s overweight and gritty partner, Quinn, the sergeant with a deep secret that leads him to a crisis of heart, and Chavo Buenavente, of the rival gang and Oscar’s nemesis all have distinct personalities and distinguishable speech patterns. The characters are many, and their relationships are webbed. I found the hierarchy of gang members most interesting and well-researched, as are the portrayals of law enforcement agencies and employees. Barnes does her homework.

Barnes uses language and plot to instill uneasiness and fear in the reader. Her diction is less elaborate and ornate than the Gothic literature of the past. Instead, it reflects the language of everyday life in Silicon Valley in 2017. One reviewer from the Silicon Valley said, “The characters sound and behave like South Bay folks do.” I found the book to be easy to read and authentic in narrative and dialog.

Thematically Blood Allegiance raises serious questions about integrity, honor and the bonds of family and fraternity. It also sheds light on one of elite Northern California’s dirty problems swept under the rug: gangs. There’s a lot to think about after putting the book down—but don’t expect too much pondering during this action packed page-turner!

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I’m not a Spanish Literature scholar, but I’m betting Ms. Barnes was introduced to and influenced by the Spanish misterio (mystery) genre in school: serial novels inspired by Eugène Sue’s bestseller Les Mystères de Paris (1841-1843). The genre is in fact a spin-off of 19th century French Gothic fiction and represents an attempt to explore society in an urban context. The misterios actively participated in the discourses of their day, as does the Darcy Lynch Series. Serial novels like the misterios and the Darcy Lynch Series act as foundational narratives that record the new order of society. The misterios presented by the novels were in part the mysteries of the new society in the 1800s, one that its readers were learning to navigate—just like the new cyber world of our century. It’s been said that [Spanish misterios] are stories of patriarchal systems in crisis and the consequences of social transgression and relevant today.

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The Gothic form is able to articulate the anxieties of society. Blood Allegiance employs the Gothic tropes of family romance, incarceration and contamination to represent the conflicting ideologies of the 21st century. I congratulate Elin Barnes on taking her place in the venerated tradition of the Spanish misterio—21st Century style!

Elin Barnes grew up in Spain. Her father is a film director and her mother a Swedish author (with a past life as an actress).
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After graduating HS, Elin pursued her dream of becoming an airline pilot. When her eyesight impeded her to fly passenger aircrafts, she switched gears and obtained a BA in Philosophy. After a short stint working for a criminal appeals lawyer, Elin returned to Spain to get her MA in International Commerce.

For the last decade she’s worked in technology for companies like, AT&T, T-Mobile, Google, Microsoft, TiVo, and Samsung. She is on the Board of Sisters in Crime Northern California.

Her passions for law, technology, and thrillers inspired Elin to write the Darcy Lynch Series of thrillers set in Silicon Valley, where innovation is always brewing.

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