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Two Period Mysteries

The last couple weeks I’ve completed two newer period mysteries and one fantasy title, all through supplied review copies.  Two of them fit together pretty well because they are both period Americana mysteries.

One is “The Good Know Nothing” by Ken Kuhlken, “A Tom Hickey Novel”  set in 1936 Los Angeles, Catalina Island, and other parts of California.  The book is absolutely steeped in Great Depression California history and characters who actually lived in that era.  The language, the settings, the music– everything about the novel feels authentic to the era.  The cover write-up says this is the last of the Tom Hickey novels.  That’s a shame as I am just getting to know this smart LAPD cop and detective.  It will be worth going back to read the earlier books in the series, but this one stands on its own very well.

Tom Hickey is trying to keep his marriage to a Big Band singer together, be a good father to his young daughter, and still be a good detective for the LAPD.  He also tries to be a good brother to his sister who is a personal assistant to evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson.  Tom had been the responsible “parent” for his sister since their father disappeared after being accused of killing someone.  Years later, a friend of the family receives a manuscript for a book, “The Death Ship” that had been published under another person’s name, B. Traven, but the friend says their long lost father claims to have written.  The book is considered a modern classic and they attempt to woo the author back.  When someone other than their father shows up, Tom and his sister, Florence, believe their father has been killed by someone who then claimed their father’s work as their own.  The search to find out what happened to their father leads them to the likes of Harry Longabough (aka Sundance Kid), William Randolph Hurst and his mistress Marion Davies.  I was hooked almost from the first chapter on “The Good Know Nothing.”

My second mystery read was another in Reavis Z Wortham’s “A Red River Mystery,” “Dark Places.”  This novel is set in the era of flower children in 1967.  Pepper, the 14 year old grandchild of our protagonist, Constable Ned Parker from Center Springs, Texas, decides to run away with her sometime boyfriend, Cale Westlake in hopes of reaching San Francisco to start a new, carefree life.  The trials and tribulations of being on the road with very little money and no food or supplies soon brings both Cale and Pepper face to face with reality, but not before they run into trouble with some underhanded store owners, some pimps and prostitutes and a bunch of hippies, and a motorcycle gang.  Meanwhile, Ned goes after Pepper and meets up with an American Indian named Crow who has some ulterior motives for helping out.

Dark Places” is a nostalgic ride down Highway 66 from Texas to Barstow exploring some of the darker sides of the “summer of love” in 1967.  I enjoyed this book every bit as much as Worthham’s other books in this series.

Liz Nichols

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The Right Side of Wrong by Reavis Z Wortham

Reavis Z. Wortham knows intimately the area that he writes about– Texas’ Red River Valley.  He grew up hunting and fishing in the area and has taught and written in and about Texas throughout his life.  His imaginary Red River Valley town of Center Springs and the people who inhabit this town as are prototypical of that part of Texas in the mid-1960s as the characters of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon are of northern Minnesota.  Like Keillor, Wortham brings a folksy humor to his “Red River Mystery” series, but overall the subject matter is very serious.  “The Right Side of Wrong” weaves many historical and economic markers into this tale about the beginnings of  marijuana smuggling into Texas from Mexico and drug trafficking in the 1960s.  It is a fascinating read.

There are characters to warm your heart in “The Right Side of Wrong.” The story is about an extended family which includes  the two constables of Center Springs, Ned Parker and his nephew Cody, their wives, and grandchildren who are cousins, Top and Pepper.  Part of the story is told in the first person by Top to add a more humorous and innocent touch to the story.  The kids help a mysterious neighbor, Tom Bell, fix up the old ranch house near Ned and Becky Parker’s ranch and discover a secret about this man’s past.  They also stow away in Bell’s car on an adventure to the border to help Ned Parker free Cody from a Mexican border town jail run by associates of a drug cartel.  A black constable by the name of John Washington also has the Parkers’ backs on a number of occasions and we experience through this character many instances of discrimination accurately and painfully depicted as it routinely occurred in Texas and throughout the South especially in the 1960s and earlier.  Because Becky Parker is Choctaw and Cody is half-Choctaw there is also some native culture and lore woven into the story.

The story will especially bring those of us who are baby boomers back to what was going on in the mid-1960s.  Using the two pre-teen kids to tell part of the story is a stroke of genius because it will trigger vivid memories for many baby boomer readers who were the age of Top and Pepper during the 1960s.   In addition to being nostalgic this historical mystery is also action-packed and full of twists and turns.  It was hard to put down.

The Right Side of Wrong” is the third in Wortham’s mystery series.  It would definitely be worth checking out the earlier titles in “A Red River Mystery” series.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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