Showing posts with label Sea Islands. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sea Islands. Show all posts

28 June 2013

Mother Hubbard has a Corpse in the Cupboard



And, evidently, when “Mother Hubbard” is a guy from India, those corpses can really start to pile up! 

A book review by Dixon Hill 

I read, once, that in the best mysteries the murdered body is usually discovered by page seven. Fran Rizer beats that count in Mother Hubbard has a Corpse in the Cupboard, when the first body is discovered on page three. The cupboard, where said corpse resides, is a pantry/storage room formed by canvas walls separating the kitchen space from the dining area in a county fair food-tent known as Mother Hubbard’s Beer Garden.

Calamine Lotion “Callie” Parrish (the series protagonist) has convinced her two friends – Jane and Rizzie — to join her for a ‘Ladies Day Out’ at the Jade County Fair, and naturally, the trio stops for a fair-food repast. But, a good time is not to be had by all, when Callie gets a troubling call on The Bat-Phone (er…I mean: on her bra-phone – I won’t explain more, except to say that James Brown has never made me laugh so hard!), and Jane literally stumbles over the corpse without knowing it.


How can someone UNKNOWINGLY stumble over a corpse? 

Well, Jane – Callie’s best friend since childhood – doesn’t see too well. In fact, she doesn’t see at all, as she was born without optic nerves. And, for those who don’t know: Jane earns her living as a phone sex operator and has only recently given up shoplifting. She’s also somehow become engaged to Callie’s brother, Frankie, (Even Callie isn’t sure how THAT happened!),and now Jane thinks she might be pregnant.

Callie’s other BFF, Rizzie Profit, is “ Gullah and gorgeous.” Though she and her extended family hail from Surcie Island – a fictional member of the real “Sea Island” chain off the coast of South Carolina, perhaps loosely modeled after Saint Helena Island -- Rizzie owns the Gastric Gullah Grill in St. Mary, Callie’s mainland hometown. It’s there that Rizzie works with her grandmother, Maum, and her 14-year-old brother, Tyrone.

The bad news on the bra-phone is that Maum landed in the hospital with a heart condition and a broken hip. A worried Tyrone is at her side, but Maum is terrified as well as in and out of consciousness. The teen needs his older sister to lean on.

Exit Rizzie, to the hospital, while Jane and Callie wait for the cops. 







At this point, I’ll quit the play-by-play and level with you: 

As you may have guessed from my lead-in, it’s possible to read most of this book as a light-hearted romp through what some might call the Southern Mystery Chick Lit genre, but there’s a dark streak that runs straight down through the center of this one. And, if you don’t watch out, you just might find it jerking more than a few tears out of your eyes.

Ms. Rizer has done a marvelous job of balancing the dark with the light – in more ways than one. And, I can honestly say that I was laughing out loud by the end of the very first paragraph. But, that humor is offset by the poignant loss of a loved one in the book.

Until now, no “living” character who died within the confines of the series time-frame experienced a natural death. In fact, this is the first character who actually dies on the written page; all the others were killed off-stage and discovered later. Callie’s there for this passing, however.

No slouch at writing, Ms. Rizer took this opportunity to do what I can only call “an excellent job” of comparing Callie’s feelings of personal loss when such a close friend dies, and the feelings she deals with on a daily basis while working on the dead as a funeral parlor cosmetologist.

In fact, the comparison is quite stunning.

Which should come as no surprise 

Because long-time readers of the series should have noticed, by now, how much Callie, herself, is a walking dichotomy.

Okay, this isn't really Callie,
but she's evidently her understudy.
A southern pearl struggling to prove herself a full-grown woman, Callie is in her early thirties, yet she puts up a constant false-front. She wears lip gloss like a teenager, padded panties (to give her fanny a more-rounded shape) and an inflatable bra. She also constantly changes her hair color. It’s as if she’s restrained from maturity by some unknown emotional black hole that warps her behavior in childish directions, even as she yearns to throw off the last vestiges of her childhood. 

Not that she disliked her childhood; she clearly enjoyed it. And, she obviously loves her father, even though the guy is pretty overbearing (at least, that’s what I’d call a man who won’t let his thirty-something daughter drink a couple beers in front of him). Callie also puts up with a lot from her brothers, though she seldom has a bad word to say about any of them.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that she never explains what caused the dissolution of her marriage. All readers know is that Donnie, her ex-husband, did something “that made me divorce him” and that she “didn’t catch him doing the dirty on the dining room table like Stephanie Plum did her husband.”

We know she divorced Donnie and simultaneously quit her job as a kindergarten teacher to move back to her hometown and become a cosmetician at the local funeral home – an action she sums up by quipping that she traded a job working with five-year-olds who wouldn’t take naps or lie still, for one in which she works with dead people who don’t move.

Faithful readers know, of course, from previous books, that Donnie is a surgeon and Callie’s teaching job put him through med school, and that Donnie is an ass (he makes that clear though his own actions). But, on the subject of the catalyst for her divorce – this thing that Donnie did -- she is mute.

This silence, issuing from the normally gregarious Callie, is haunting. It hints at a maturity that’s usually missing from her light-hearted chatty persona, and tells a thoughtful reader that there are deeper waters running through this woman’s silent heart.

Callie is more than she reveals to us on the written page, except in those rare instances when she’s too concerned with other things to keep up the act. Then we catch a fleeting glimpse of a different person – one which Callie is sure to dismiss with some lighthearted comments a few pages later.

Her behavior in a tight spot, for instance, often belies her daily air-head pretension. In this book, when Callie realizes that the thing Jane stumbled over in Mother Hubbard’s is a body with a bullet hole in it, she quickly hands her car keys to Rizzie, directing her to drive her (Callie’s) mustang to the hospital to comfort her brother and grandmother. Then she contacts the police and calls a waiter over to explain the situation – all while trying to calm a near-hysterical Jane. Later, it becomes clear that she’s carefully orchestrated the situation in a manner that permitted Rizzie to take care of her personal emergency, while Jane and Callie remained at the beer tent so that responding police officers could interview the two of them.

She even exerts a thought-out limited influence, in order to keep the crime scene from being disturbed before investigators arrive. These are the actions of a quick, orderly and intelligent mind, yet they’re performed by a woman who seems compelled to pretend that she’s a bubble-head concerned with little more than personal appearance.

This is what makes me suspect Callie’s hiding something from us, for some reason. I can’t help thinking that this hidden reason deals in some way with that thing Donnie did. Whether or not it’s a direct cause and effect relationship, it seems apparent that there’s some relation between her break with Donnie and the emotional insecurity that drives her to wear an inflatable bra and act in childish ways.

Or, perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps, as she claims, Callie’s just trying to make her outside resemble the maturity within, but is stymied by a body that looks as if it belongs to a girl just past puberty. Maybe she’s one of those unfortunate people who suddenly seem to physically jump in age from 16 to 47 almost overnight – though the change is often tacked up to hard living and loneliness, by the person’s peers.

But, we readers (or, at least, I) don’t want to see this happen to Callie. Instead, we want her to meet a man who will tell her – to borrow a phrase from Bridget Jones's Diary – “I like you … just as you are,” while unsnapping that silly bra and sliding her out of those padded panties for the last time.

Not that Callie has to be “rescued” by a man. We just want to see her snap out of it. This is part of the series allure: I want Callie to realize she doesn’t need to pretend to be somebody she’s not – that she’s a smart, industrious, and pretty terrific young woman. And, if her dad and brothers can’t handle that fact, it’s not her problem. They’re the ones who need to find a way to deal with it.

I can’t help thinking that when Callie realizes this, she’ll finally be the full-grown woman she’s striving to become – both inside and out. Beating my hands on my thighs while I read the books, wanting to tell her that’s the answer, wanting to help her quit this whipsaw effect between adolescence and adulthood, that’s what drives me crazy about the Callie character.

Yet, in some strange way, this personal fallible is also what brings Callie’s character to life.

And, if I’m fully honest: It’s also what makes me love her.

Not that there isn't a satisfying mystery here … 

 … all I’s dotted and T’s crossed by the end of the book. Rizer proves her mettle by presenting us with such a gripping story of personal loss, as a loved one fades slowly away, yet she never lets this overpower or derail the mystery. A difficult feat, but one she handles with a hand so deft I sometimes found myself laughing through misty eyes, as I tried to weigh the suspects:

 Jetendre “J.T.” Patel: He’s the Mother Hubbard concession owner, who was born in India and immigrated as a child with his parents. He met Callie after she discovered the corpse, but it’s her body he’s thinking of. Or, is it?

 Nila and Nina: Identical twin spinsters, one of whom has finally succumbed to old age. The survivor wants to be sure she and her dead sister are coifed and dressed identically for the viewing and funeral—complete with a costume change between the two events.

When a mysterious man arrives, claiming to have been an old flame of the dead woman, but begins dating the living one, Callie’s suspicions are raised, particularly after she learns that the funeral director from the twins’ hometown wants to know why the dead sister is being buried by an out-of-town firm.

As the book progresses, with no visible ties between the murder victims, another question looms large: Who defaced caskets at the mortuary where Callie works, keeps smoking cigarettes out front of Callie’s place late at night, and riles her normally placid dog, Big Boy, until the angry Great Dane lights out after the culprit only to return with his tail between his legs?

When a second murder victim turns up, the evidence strongly points at Rizzie’s brother, Tyrone. And, while Callie’s friend, Sheriff Wayne Harmon, wants to give the teenager a break, the local lawman’s sympathy is checked by concerns that it seems the boy has fallen in with the wrong gang – and by the fact that the boy, who’s a crack shot, claims to have thrown away his hunting rifle, which is the same caliber as the murder weapon.

But, if Tyrone is the perp, why was the family van torched in the hospital parking lot?

Callie fans needn't fear: Their favorite inflatable-bra detective is on the case!
Fran Rizer (center) at a reading with "Callie" and "Jane"
Mother Hubbard has a Corpse in the Cupboard is published by Bella Rosa Books.  It is available in trade paperback at bookstores and Amazon, as well as on NOOK and Kindle.  I highly recommend it.

See you in two weeks!
--Dix