Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the challenges for crime writers who create amateur sleuths is credibility. For a story with an amateur-sleuth protagonist to work, there has to be a believable way to get involved in a case, and to find out information. Otherwise, the reader can be pulled out of the story because it doesn’t feel plausible. It’s not an easy task to create this sort of authenticity, but it can be done. Let’s look at an example today, and turn the spotlight on Edie Claire’s Never Buried, the first of her Leigh Koslow mysteries.
Koslow is a writer for a Pittsburgh advertising agency. As the story begins, she’s staying with her cousin, Cara March, who’s seven months pregnant. Since March’s husband, Gil, is out of the country on an extended business trip, the idea is that Koslow will keep her cousin company and be sure she’s all right until Gil returns.
All goes well until one morning when Koslow discovers a man’s body in the hammock on the March property. She immediately calls her friend and former college roommate, Maura Polanski, who’s now on the local police force. Polanski arrives, and the police begin an investigation.
The case is an odd one, right from the start. For one thing, the body remains are at least a few decades old. For another, the victim seems to have died of natural causes, so it’s not an obvious murder case. For another, a note pinned to the dead man’s shirt says,
‘Get out of my house!’
The body is soon identified as Paul Fischer, who died in 1989, and who, in fact, owned the home in which Cara and Gil March now live. The note is recent, so Fischer couldn’t have written it. All of this makes Polanski concerned for Koslow’s safety and that of her cousin. But there’s not much she can do at the moment.
Soon, though, there are other threats. It’s now clear that someone wants the Marches and Koslow out of the house. What’s more, there’s the question of Paul Fischer’s body. How did it get removed from the grave? And why that particular body? Both Koslow and her cousin are curious and determined. Neither is pleased, either, at the thought of an annoying prankster, if that’s all it is. Still, they take the precautions of getting a good security system and of being alert.
In the meantime, they begin to learn more about Fischer, who lived in the house for most of his life. They also learn about the 1949 deaths of Fischer’s father and stepmother. The more the cousins learn about those deaths, the more it seems that they were murders. And Fischer might have known more about what happened than he ever told anyone. And the more the cousins find out, the clearer it is that there’s something still in the house that someone wants.
Then, Polanski’s mother, who is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, disappears. Did she wander off? Is it related to the ongoing investigation? It’s soon clear that someone is willing to do whatever it takes to stop anyone from finding out the truth about the 1949 deaths.
Koslow is an amateur sleuth, which means that she and her cousin don’t have access to police files, forensics results, and the like. And Polanski can’t give them confidential information. So, they find things out in other ways, such as searching the house, talking to the people who live next door, and so on. And Polanski works on the case in her official capacity. Readers who dislike amateur sleuths who question witnesses, get DNA results, and so on will be pleased that that really doesn’t happen here.
Although this novel isn’t ‘frothy,’ it might be considered a cosy mystery. There’s little in the way of violence, and none of it is brutal or extended. At the same time, the truth about the 1949 deaths is very sad, and this isn’t the sort of story where a killer is led away in handcuffs and everything’s right again at the end. There’s language, too, that makes this novel a little grittier than a typical cosy (if there is such a thing) is.
The story takes place in Avalon, a working-class area of Pittsburgh, and Claire places the reader there. Although Pittsburgh itself is a large city, its various areas have a smaller-town feeling, and that’s what we see in this novel. Avalon is the sort of place where people know each other, and relationships go back a number of years. Without spoiling the story, I can say that that network of relationships plays a role in the mystery. It’s interesting, too, to see how Koslow and her family are woven into Avalon’s social network. People know her, know her veterinarian father, and so on.
The story is told mostly from Koslow’s point of view (third person, past tense), so we learn a bit about her. She’s bright, educated, and curious, but not foolhardy. She’s determined and sometimes even stubborn, but not the type to take rash decisions. And it’s interesting to see how she and Polanski support each other and work in their own ways to solve the case.
Never Buried is the story of two long-ago deaths, and the consequences for a group of people. It takes place in a working-class borough of Pittsburgh, and features an amateur sleuth who grew up there and is a part of the scene. But what’s your view? Have you read Never Buried? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 5 June/Tuesday, 6 June – You – Zoran Drvenkar
Monday, 12 June/Tuesday, 13 June – Red Ink – Angela Makholwa
Monday, 19 June/Tuesday, 20 June – Falling Angel – William Hjortsberg