In The Spotlight: Earlene Fowler’s State Fair

SpotlightHello, All

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


Filed under Earlene Fowler, State Fair

24 responses to “In The Spotlight: Earlene Fowler’s State Fair

  1. I haven’t read a ‘good cosy’ in a long time Margot. I do like quilts, they are so beautiful and lend themselves so well to this type of novel. Good to hear that this is a self-contained mystery even if it is near the end of the series. Thanks for sharing yet another author I’ve not heard about before.

    • There really is an interesting bit about storytelling quilts in this one, Cleo. I’m with you about quilts; those handmade ones are beautiful. And yes, I think one really can read this one on its own merits, even if one’s not familiar with the rest of the series. If you do get to it at some point, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  2. I love novels with good character stories in them. They’re what drive me to keep reading. However, as a bit of an obsessive series reader in order, I don’t think I’ll be starting this one with number 14!

    Looking forward to reading your spotlight on The Dinner though! 🙂

    • Thanks, Rebecca – I’m looking forward to that one, too. 🙂 – And that’s the thing about long-running series. It’s hard to catch up if one’s the type to prefer starting a series at the beginning. If you ever do try Fool’s Puzzle (the first in the series), I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  3. Thanks Margot sounds very well mixed in terms of domestic and crime elements and glad the order of the sequence isn’t too important as that makes it easier to get “on board”

    • It does, indeed, Sergio. And you know, it can be difficult to mix in the elements right, so that there’s a good mix of domestic scenes and the criminal investigation. Everyone’s different about that sort of thing, so your mileage may vary, as the saying goes. But I think it’s done pretty well here.

  4. I read a much earlier entry in this series a long time ago, and did enjoy it. These series do run away from me! I should sample another one…

    • I know what you mean, Moira! There’s never enough time to keep up with every series, is there? Even if one really enjoys an entry and means to read another, it can be hard. If you do sample another in this series, I hope you’ll like it, too.

  5. I always enjoy an occasional cosy to provide a bit of contrast to the normal diet of grittier stuff. This sounds good – fun characters in an interesting setting. And suspension of disbelief is nearly always essential with cosies, since in real life not many amateurs solve crimes before the police!

    • You’ve got a point, FictionFan, about amateur sleuths solving crimes. I will say of this one that, since the protagonist is married to a copper, and friends with a sheriff, she does at least have a sense of what she’s allowed to do, and can do. As I say, I think there is some suspension of disbelief, as you nearly always have to have with a cosy. But, speaking strictly for me, I’ve seen much worse as far as that goes. And it is an interesting setting; Fowler does the region quite well, in my opinion.

  6. Col

    Probably not one for me.

  7. I’ve read a number of books in this series, but unfortunately not this one. I first picked up an Earlene Fowler book because of the quilt related theme and quite enjoyed it and all the others since then. I liked the protagonist because she was so sensible and down to earth. A good reminder I need to catch up on this series. Another interesting spotlight, Margot. Thanks! 🙂

    • It’s good to hear you this series so much, Mason. And I do agree with you about Benni Harper. She is a down-to-earth character, isn’t she? I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you’ll like this novel when you gett to it.

  8. Ann

    I loved this series with it’s western/small California town feel. I found out Earlene Fowler actually lives in a small area outside Los Angeles – La Puente, where I lived for a few years. We may have crossed paths without knowing.

    • Small world, isn’t it, Ann? There is something authentic about novels when the author lives, or has lived, in the area where the story is set, and I agree you see that in these novels. Glad you enjoyed them so much.

  9. The quilt part immediately made me think of a book mark I found at my library yesterday that says, “forget Fifty Shades of Grey, the Amish are hot!” along with a list of authors who apparently write Amish romances! I’m going to give it to my old granny this weekend. 😄

  10. Fifteen books in the series! Wow. I remember when she started the series I went to a signing, and saw her on panels at a mystery con or two. Has it been that long? Apparently so. I read the first four, I think, before I was lured away by other books. I may have to find number five.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Richard, about being lured away, even from a series one enjoys. It’s happened to me, too. There are so many great series and authors out there. You’re lucky that you had a chance to see Earlene Fowler in person; I’ll bet it was a great experience.

  11. Sounds like a topic I would enjoy reading about, although maybe a bit too cozy. I haven’t tried one from this series.

    • To be honest, Tracy, I think this might be a bit on the ‘soft side’ for you. That said, though, it’s not ‘frothy.’ And it’s got a real sense of Central Valley culture.

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