Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Bill Crider was a well-known, well-respected crime writer and commentator who passed away early this year. He left behind a legacy of crime fiction novels, Westerns, and horror fiction, too. It’s about time this feature included one of his stories, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Too Late to Die, the first of his Sheriff Dan Rhodes novels.
The story begins as Rhodes, Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, is looking into a break-in at a local market. He’s talking to the owner about it when the body of Jeanne Clinton is discovered in her home. The owner of the market, Hod Barrett, is none too happy about his case being relegated to second place, so to speak. But a murder is a murder, and Rhodes and his deputies and staff get to work.
As you might guess, the most likely suspect is the victim’s husband, Elmer. It doesn’t help his case that his wife had been ‘a bit wild’ as a younger woman and might still be entertaining ‘visitors.’ But Elmer says that Jeanne had matured, and he’s not the only one who says so. Besides, so he claims, he was at work at the time of the murder, and he can prove it. And even Rhodes is inclined to believe that Elmer Clinton loved his wife.
If Clinton isn’t the murderer, the team has to work out who is. And that means finding out who might have seen Jeanne Clinton on the evening she was killed. As it turns out, there are several people who did. Even Hod Barrett was there, as were a few other highly respectable local citizens. Every one of them eventually admits to being friends with the victim. But each one says that: a) it was just a friendship, nothing more; b) Jeanne was alive when last seen. Untangling the truth from the lies is going to take effort.
In the meantime, Rhodes is facing an election year, and this time, he’s got real competition. Ralph Claymore is running for sheriff, and he’s got his share of support. He looks the part, too, and is comfortable interacting with people. It’s not going to be an easy win.
As if that’s not enough, two local citizens have decided to sue Rhodes, the country, and whoever else they can sue for beating them up during a routine stop. They blame Rhodes’ deputy, Johnny Sherman, and they’re out for a big win. In fact, they’ve hired Billy Don Painter, who’s seen as a hotshot lawyer, to press their case for them. It doesn’t help matters at all that Sherman is dating Rhodes’ daughter, Kathy.
Then, there are two more deaths. Now, Rhodes is under intense pressure to solve this case. The public wants answers, and he’s not sleeping easily, either. And he’s not likely to win re-election if Claymore can use these murders against him. In the end, and piece by piece, Rhodes puts the puzzle together.
This novel takes place in rural Texas, and the reader is placed there immediately and distinctly. There are local food markets, plenty of boots and Dr. Pepper, Texas expressions, and pickup trucks. But Crider doesn’t present stereotypes. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the characters in this novel are more complex than that.
Because the setting is a small, rural area, everyone knows everyone, and that includes Rhodes. Many of the people in town have relationships that stretch back to primary school, and Rhodes and his deputies know everyone’s history.
The story is told from Rhodes’ perspective (third person, past tense), so readers learn about him. He is widowed, but he has more or less gotten used to it. He misses his wife, but he doesn’t wallow in that. In fact, he starts his first, awkward, attempts at dating again in this novel (and no, it doesn’t really have a romance aspect). He makes mistakes in this case, but he is a persistent, hardworking detective who gets to the truth in the end.
The solution to the mystery is, in its way, more complex than it might seem on the surface. I don’t want to say more about it for fear of spoilers, but I can say that readers who appreciate moral ambiguity will appreciate some of the situations in the novel. In the end, Rhodes wants to do the right thing. But what counts as the right thing isn’t really clear when the facts are known.
There is some violence in the novel (there are, after all, three deaths). But it is mostly ‘off stage.’ Still, this is not a ‘frothy’ read. There is real sadness in the story, and knowing the truth doesn’t make that go away. That said, though, there is a strong sense that life will go on, and that the local people will pick up their lives.
Too Late to Die is the story of a small Texas community and its sheriff, and what happens to everyone when murder strikes. It uncovers several local secrets, and introduces a sleuth who wants to do what’s best for everyone. But what’s your view? Have you read Too Late to Die? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 17 December/Tuesday, 18 December – All She Was Worth – Miyuki Miyabe
Monday, 24 December/Tuesday, 25 December – In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
Monday, 31 December/Tuesday, 1 January – Accused – Lisa Scottoline