Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some series are as much about the character of a place, and the sorts of people who live there, as about anything else. One of those is Earlene Fowler’s Benni Harper series, so let’s take a look at that series today We’ll turn the spotlight on State Fair, the fourteenth Benni Harper novel.
Benni Harper is a rancher and a folk museum curator in San Celina, in California’s agricultural Central Valley. She’s also a member of the Booster Buddies, a local group that promotes the annual Mid-State Fair. And it’s in that capacity that she’ll be volunteering for different responsibilities at this year’s fair. She’s looking forward to the experience; the fair is a fun social event, an opportunity for people to show their skills, and a good business booster. And that’s not to mention the bad-for-the-diet-but-irresistible food.
One of the prime exhibits is to be a showing of story quilts from the Ebony Sisters Quilt Guild. And chief among the quilts is to be a replica of a quilt by Harriet Powers, a legendary story quilter. So when the quilt is stolen, all of the guild members are deeply upset. Their display contains some unique items, and has a real sense of African-American storytelling history. The thought of it being ruined is hard to take.
Benni and Detective Ford ‘Hud’ Hudson of the San Celinas Sheriff’s Department try to find out who would have had access to the quilt, and who might have wanted to steal it. But they soon find they have bigger problems. The quilt is found in one of the other exhibits – wrapped around the body of a young man, Calvin ‘Cal’ Jones. Cal’s had brushes with the law, trouble with alcohol, and other problems. But he was essentially a ‘good kid’ – one of those who might have a real future if he could stay out of trouble.
Since the quilt was found with the body, the first assumption is that the thief is also the killer. And that opens up a few possibilities. Jones was dating Jasmine ‘Jazz’ Clark, a member of the guild. As it turns out, he had a rival, Dodge Burnside, who threatened him (and Jazz). And there’s another, more frightening possibility. At one time, Jones was friends with some ‘skinheads.’ He stopped spending time with them, but who knows how they would have reacted to his relationship with a young black woman? There are other leads, too that point in other directions.
In the meantime, Benni is coping with a problem on the home front. She’s having to play referee between her grandmother, Dove, who lives on a nearby ranch, and her great-aunt (Dove’s sister), Garnet, who’s visiting from Arkansas. It’s not an easy balance, especially when Aunt Garnet takes an interest in the murder case. In the end, though, Benni and Hud, with help from Garnet and from Benni’s police-chief husband, Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Ortiz, find out the truth about the quilt and the death of Cal Jones.
This is a cosy series. So the novel doesn’t have a lot of violence. And what there is, is mostly ‘off stage.’ The same can be said of the use of language in the novel. That said, though, this isn’t what you’d call a ‘jolly romp.’ The issue of racism is not a trivial one, and Fowler doesn’t gloss over it. And beneath the peaceful surface, there are some other unpleasant things going on in the county. And there is danger as Benni gets closer to the truth about the murder. There’s also a real sense of loss at Jones’ death.
The story takes place in California’s agricultural Central Valley/Central Coast, and Fowler gives the reader a picture of the people and lifestyle of that part of the US. This area is most definitely farm country. There are large, commercial farms, as well as smaller farms. And of course, there are ranches. The radio stations play country music, and the de rigueur outfit includes jeans and boots. There are also businesses, so the region is contending with ‘creeping urbanitis,’ as you might say. The story also reflects the different people who live in the area. There are whites, blacks, some Native Americans, and Mexican/Mexican-Americans. There are some people who’ve lived there for a long time, and other, more recent transplants. There is, also, an interesting influence from the American South. In fact, Benni’s own family has Southern roots.
The story is told from Benni’s point of view (in first person), so her character plays a central role. She is down-to-earth, devoted to her family, and what a lot of people would call sensible. She’s had her share of sorrow, but she’s happily married to Gabe, and has a good life. She finds it hard to let this case alone, but she also knows that there are limits to what she’s allowed to do, or for the matter of that, should do. Whether or not there’s too much suspension of disbelief is up to the reader. But I can say without spoiling the story that Benni doesn’t, for instance, take on an entire gang of well-armed thugs by herself.
The story does have some real sadness. But there’s wit in it, too. For instance, Aunt Garnet is addicted to crime shows on TV, and to crime fiction. So she drops the names of famous crime writers such as James Lee Burke, and often uses terms such as ‘perp,’ and ‘4-1-1.’ She’s easy to dismiss on that account, but she’s also quite shrewd, and people condescend to her at their peril.
As I mentioned, State Fair is the fourteenth novel (of fifteen) in this series. So there are some story arcs. But the mystery plot is self-contained. Readers who are familiar with the series will know several of the characters. Readers who aren’t, will be able to learn who they are and what their relationships are without a great deal of difficulty.
State Fair is a down-home sort of cosy that takes place in California’s heartland. It features an ‘inside look’ at a rural fair, and features a sleuth who feels too many connections to the people involved in the mystery to let it go. But what’s your view? Have you read State Fair? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 15 August/Tuesday, 16 August – The Dinner – Herman Koch
Monday, 22 August/Tuesday, 23 August – Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty
Monday, 29 August/Tuesday, 30 August – The Last Child – John Hart