by Robert Lopresti
I just read a very good mystery novel, which I don't recommend you read. This is not because of my natural perversity, but because I want to save you from the unnatural perversity of starting a series at the end. Farewell, Miss Zukas is the last volume in a series, and the reason for that is one reason I am bringing up the book at all. It gives us a chance to discuss some of the trends in the publishing world. I do hope I convince you to look up the early books in the series, which are available at least electronically.
First of all, full disclosure. The author, Jo Dereske, is a friend of mine and a fellow librarian. (In fact, this book contains a brief mention of "Rob, the mystery writer." He sounds like a fascinating character and I wish we had heard more about him.)
The heroine of these books is Wilhelmina Zukas, a librarian who works at the public library in Bellehaven, Washington. And here we get into an endless series of inside jokes; Jo and I both live in Bellingham, Washington, which Bellehaven resembles to a remarkable degree. (She has pointed out the many benefits of fictionalizing her setting; for example, eliminating a mall she doesn't like.)
So what is Helma Zukas like? Smart, introverted, private, small, neat...the word repressed comes to mind. Clearly Dereske was playing with the stereotype of the librarian. (Most people in the field love Miss Zukas.)
You see, Helma is far too complex and interesting to see as a mere stereotype. Quiet and introverted, yes. But meek? Never. In almost every book she stuns quarrelers into silence with her “silver dime voice.” In one novel she destroys library records so that the police can’t violate the privacy of a book borrower. (And if that seems a far-fetched series of events consider this which happened in the same county that contains Bellingham.)
So Helma is a force to be reckoned with. Now, consider her best friend since fifth grade, Ruth Winthrop. Ruth is an artist. She is tall (and wears heels to emphasize it). She is also loud, brassy, dresses in wild colors and is as easy with men as Helma is not. Although these two opposites would gladly take a bullet for each other, they can't stand to be iin the same room for more than an hour. Dereske has received many emails from women asking "How do you know about me and my best friend?"
The author’s ability to connect to her audience is relevant to my point and we will get back to it, but here is an example: I once heard Dereske read a portion in which Miss Zukas filing some cards in alphabetical order and Dereske got quite rapturous about the meditation-like peace that comes with alphabetizing. I don’t know how many of the audience were librarians but I heard any number of guilty giggles from people who had experienced that same pleasure.
Helma is supported (or more usually, hindered) by a large collection of associates, like the young children’s librarian Glory Shandy, who is always ready with constructive criticism about Helma’s appearance. (When someone gives Helma an unwanted free visit to a beauty consultant Glory enthuses "He's probably very good at disguising mature skin.")
But the two most important supporting characters are what you might call a couple of soulmates of Miss Z. Police Chief Wayne Gallant came to town just after a nasty divorce, which means Helma has a crush on the only person around as nervous about relationships as herself. And Helma reluctantly takes in (but never talks to or touches) a stray animal who becomes known as Boy Cat Zukas, because that’s what the vet calls him. Boy Cat is as standoffish as his owner and they seem made for each other.
The first eleven books were published by Avon, which then chose not to renew the contract. Dereske has no complaints; she understands that the economy forced the decision, and she was willing to call the series over.
But remember what I said about Jo's relationship with her readers? They were insistent that the saga needed an ending. After holding discussions with some mainstream publishers, she decided to self-publish. And that brings us to Farewell, Miss Zukas, which winds up most of the strings of the story and brings our heroine to a happy ending.
And speaking of happy endings, you can see this story as depressing (good authors are losing publishers left and right) or positive (authors are taking control of their destiny). But in the spirit of natural perversity I am going to end with a favorite passage from the very beginning of Miss Zukas And The Island Murders
On [Miss Zukas'] desk blotter lay a week-old newspaper article listing ten books a local group, calling themselves Save Your Kids, demanded be withdrawn from the library collection. Two of the books, including Madonna's SEX, weren't even owned by the library, although twenty-three patrons had requested them since the article appeared....
Eve pointed to the Save Your Kids article on Helma's desk and stuck out her lower lip. "Why ban Little Red Riding Hood? What did SHE ever do?"
"I believe it was the wolf who did it," Helma said. "But don't worry, she's safe. Fortunately, the Constitution's still in effect."
If you like funny mysteries with quirky characters, you can't do much better than to take a trip to Bellehaven.