The Butler Did It
Between the Living and the Dead
by Bill Crider
New York: Minotaur Books, 2015
259 pp. $25.99 cloth
Bill Crider has been writing mysteries following Sheriff Dan Rhodes in small town Clearview, Texas, since 1987. Between the Living and the Dead marks his twenty-second outing with the character, and the world of the novel certainly feels lived in, and every character has connections to past adventures. The town of Clearview feels like a place out of time, a full and hermetically sealed world of easygoing mystery¾a Mayberry.
A murder precipitates the mystery of the novel, but it happens off-page, and the only other violence in the book comes from a hog stampede. A body is discovered in the town’s “haunted house,” and Sheriff Rhodes’s friend Seepy Benton just so happens to have just become paranormal investigator, and with his (grudgingly accepted) help they discover a literal skeleton in a closet. (Says Seepy, “Our first success is a cliché, but I’ll take it.” So will the book—it’s comfortable with itself.) The mystery leads to a couple of meth cookers, Earl and Louie, cousins of the dead man and Rhodes’s principle suspects, but they turn out to be goofy and contrite, and there are no meth heads in the book to complicate their contrition. The mayor’s college-age nephew is in town researching the drug problem (or so he says) and Rhodes is honestly confused as to why the boy wouldn’t come to the sheriff first—who would know better? Everyone owns a gun, this being Texas, but no one uses them. Every suspect leads to a clue, every clue to a suspect, along the way we visit an entire town full of kooks, and there’s enough time for Rhodes to get barbeque with his wife, wrangle a bull in the parking lot of the Walmart, and spend full pages playing with his dogs Yancy and Speedo. It’s set in 2015, but Rhodes does not have a smart phone or use the internet, and he believes that a character who runs a news site wholly devoted to Clearview can make a living off it.
And it is all a lot of fun!
This is the type of book you’d buy your grammy, if you’d never heard her swear, and spend a rainy day at her house reading. It’s lighthearted and well-plotted. It is, in a word, comforting.
And yet, much of the comfort comes from Rhodes’s kind, magnanimous treatment of everyone¾meth cookers, corrupt politicians, trigger-happy deputies, and even the eventual murderer (who comes quietly, of course)¾much of which is possible only through elision. As I mentioned, there are no meth heads to make Earl and Louie seem less goofy. And the mayor is only corrupt for honorable reasons.
In Clearview, Texas, prison is easy. Police and drug dealers don’t pose much of a threat to each other, or anyone else. There are no addicts in between. And every suspect is suspicious. Between the Living and the Dead’s magnanimity towards everybody is supposed to feel like common sense, but I don’t think his readers will find it quite so easy. In 2016 it doesn’t read as innocent, it seems naïve.
Patrick Cline is orginally from New Haven, Conneticut. His short fiction has appeared in Zoetrope and Pacific Review.