Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Top of the book pile
“You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it.”
— Lionel Twain, played by Truman Capote in the 1976 movie Murder By Death
It’s for those reasons that I have never read mystery novels. I’ve been afraid, not that I wouldn’t guess whodunit, but that it wouldn’t make sense to me when the central detective figured it out. I didn’t want the mystery to be ... you, know... mystifying.
Such is not the case with Paula LaRocque’s Chalk Line, the first in what I hope will be a long line of Ben Gallagher mysteries. You’ll never guess the murderer of an old family friend of Ben’s — a man his widowed mother was about to marry — but, for those of you who are as insecure about these things as I am, you will be able to follow the steps in solving the mystery.
It would have been easy to make Ben and the the rest of a large cast of characters one-dimensional caricatures, but LaRocque has provided them all with enough contradictions and personal quirks to make them seem like frustratingly real humans.
Ben Gallagher, who has a doctorate in fine arts, is chief of detectives in Arlington, Texas. The book opens with him driving to the state penitentiary to pick up his brother Andrew who has just completed a 10-year sentence in Huntsville prison for his part in a prank gone bad.
Once home, but before Ben and Andrew can have a reunion dinner with family and friends, Dayton Slaughter (a fitting name for the victim) is murdered in Ben’s house. Ben manages to cop two days’ head start from his boss to find the killer before the case is handed over to his Nigerian-born partner (who also holds a PhD, in chemical engineering) and their team, consisting of a Comanche and a lesbian. The cast consists of practically the full complement of racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual-orientation possibilities, but mercifully no Texas stereotypes.
The case takes Ben and Co. on a multiple mystery tour from Texas to Michigan and back again, solving not only Slaughter’s… um, slaughter… but also a 40 year-old cold case, and uncovering family secrets.
LaRocque is a former assistant managing editor and writing coach at the Dallas Morning News and author of several books on writing that I have used in training new journalists. So I expected her writing to be as evocative as it was. In fact, LaRocque’s use of detail is such that once you’ve read the book and then seen the movie when — and there will be a movie — you will swear you’ve already seen it.