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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Death and the Hot Librarian

There’s just something about a small town. Leaving your windows open at night (even the ones on your car, if you’re of a mind to thumb your nose at the rain gods). Smiling and saying hello to whomever you pass by, and maybe stopping to chat for a spell with those who’ve known you--and all your family--forever. Quaint little mom-and-pop soft-serve joints on the roadside. Farmers (or their wives or their kids) selling sweet corn out of the back of a beat-up pickup truck in late summer. All told, just a slower way of life, because there’s really not much need to get anywhere in particular that fast (not that it would take all that long, anyway, mind you).
Then again, there’s just something about a small town. The neighbors as aware of all your comings and goings as they are of their own, and plenty of folks with the ability to air every bit of your dirty laundry (if they happen to get a wild hare to do so). Certain expectations to be met, or maybe a dubious family history to be overcome. A lack of excitement, aside from the new Qwik-Stop convenience store opening up, the high school football team winning a local championship, and the annual mid-summer “town reunion”. And, the primary nod to “culture” being the yearly Christmas pageants put on by youth groups at the area churches.
Whatever you might think pro or con small-town life, you just can’t know unless you’ve experienced both extremes--the cloistered security of thea hamlet and the hustle-&-bustle of the “bright lights, big city”. Jordan Poteet knows, though, and in Texas author Jeff Abbot’s Do Unto Others, he finds himself having to make a decision: leave behind his dream job--a fun and lucrative editing position--and all the excitement he loves in Boston, so he can return to tiny Mirabeau, Texas and help care for his ailing mother... or let his older sister have her way and move Mom into a home?
Of course Jordy opts to forsake the good life and go back to his childhood home--“of course” because it wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t, but also because Jordy is a genuinely good guy--and moves in with his sister, her 13-yr-old son, and their Alzheimer’s-befuddled mama.
Career opportunities are another area in which small towns are sadly lacking, so when Jordy returns to Mirabeau, the best he’s able to do is take the recently-vacated (due to a sad-but-not-unexpected death) position as head of the town’s little public library. (No, it doesn’t pay well. Not much in Mirabeau does, really. But, at least it provides him with a paycheck and keeps him around the books he loves.) And, it’s an interesting enough job in its own way. He has a small staff (of one), a pretty young woman with whom he sorta has a mutual crush. He sees the “regulars” most days--from the polite old Southern gentleman and his elderly cronies to the nerdy (and woefully style-challenged) D-&-D/sci-fi loner teenager; from the paraplegic Vietnam vet-turned-activist to the local “celebrity” (a pretty successful writer of steamy bodice-rippers) and her middle-aged cadre of tittering followers--by and large, a mostly-likable, relatively-harmless little group who all share in the love of reading.
But, just as there’s inevitably a bad apple at the bottom of the basket, there’s Beta Harcher, another of Jordy’s regulars... who sorta spoils whatever she touches. Beta is the town’s religious zealot, far more outspoken in her beliefs and viewpoints than the leaders of Mirabeau’s Baptist, Catholic, and Episcopalian churches, combined. In the few months Jordy’s been back in town and working at the library, Beta has made it her mission to get as many books as possible banned. (To date, her luck has been zilch in the banning department... not that that’s gonna stop her.)
One fateful day, while Jordy and assistant Candace are putzing around doing normal library tasks, and the little building itself is stuffed full of all the regulars, Beta storms in with a bee in her bonnet, ready to unleash her latest bout of vitriol on poor Jordy. (The target of her ire this time is DH Lawrence’s Women in Love--the sinfulness of which she is not to be convinced otherwise.) She and Jordy have words, and the confrontation ends with surprising violence when Beta wallops Jordy with the book in question and knocks him down, before some of the other patrons can herd her out. Everyone is suitably shocked, but after a bit even that topic is exhausted; nary a person takes Beta’s side.
Jordy returns to the library after-hours that same night, to get the prescription for his mom which he’d picked up earlier but had forgotten to take home with him. While there, he has the eerie sensation of being watched, but he puts it down to paranoia (and still being a little unnerved about having his manhood handed to him on a plate by a small, middle-aged woman that afternoon) and leaves without looking around.
He should have listened to his spidey senses. The very next morning, as he and Candace are opening the library for the day, they get the shock of their lives when they stumble across Beta’s now very-dead body, sprawled out on the library floor. In almost no time at all--in light of the previous day’s little scuffle, the history of animosity between the pair, and the fact that the murder weapon bears only Jordy’s prints on it--Jordy finds himself the prime suspect in Beta’s murder. No matter that the sheriff and he go way back; murder is murder, and a suspect with a motive (Beta threatened his library, and his job! She’d just made him look like less of a man!) is still a suspect.
No one seemed to like the unpleasant Beta, but Jordy still feels himself being railroaded (out of convenience, if nothing more), and decides it’s up to him to clear his own name by figuring out who actually did the dastardly deed. So, armed with the names of the library board members (whom Beta constantly battled), plus a handwritten list found on Beta’s person--a list of several local people (including both Jordy and his mama) with an ominous or perplexing bible verse corresponding to each name--Jordy sets out to play boy detective. 
What he finds is that everyone--and no one--might have had some motive for killing the spiteful shrew. There’s the hail-fellow-well-met used-car salesman who’d recently had a loud fight with her, witnessed by more than one person. A nurse whom Beta had accused of trying to poison her during a brief stay at the hospital. The romance writer, with whom Beta had a clandestine--and unfriendly--meeting earlier in the week (and which she neglected to mention, when sipping iced tea with Jordy on her wide front porch and running through theories). The prim preacher’s wife, who’d clashed with Beta many times over who could best do which church duties, and how. The paraplegic Vet, with whose radical beliefs Beta had loudly disagreed on multiple occasions (not that she’d think too highly of his toking up, either, were she also privy to that little factoid). Jordy’s teenage cousin, a football player and nice kid whom Beta could only find objectionable by his popularity. And Mrs. Poteet--the sweetest, gentlest woman Jordy has ever known--now addled by Alzheimer’s, whose presence on Beta’s mysterious list is the most perplexing of all.
Things are further complicated (well, that’s an understatement) when Beta’s niece--a beautiful, friendly young woman, as different from Beta as you could hope to find--comes to town from Houston to settle her aunt’s estate. Apparently surprising an intruder searching for... something in Beta’s house, the niece is shot, thereby doubling the incidence of serious crime in Mirabeau, and leaving Jordy more determined than ever to get to the bottom of the mystery.

After unearthing numerous assorted scandals--secret loves, hidden pasts, illicit affairs, and illegal drugs, to name a few (and which everyone involved would, by the by, have preferred to remain buried), Jordy and the killer finally have their final showdown... and it’s a doozy. (But no, I’m not gonna tell you what happens. The fun is in the getting there, trust me.) 
Do Unto Others, which is Abbot’s first in a series featuring Jordy Poteet, serves up plenty of twists and turns with a light, humorous touch and plenty of heart. Jordy-the-librarian makes for a likable, unexpected hero; he’s a bright, funny, regular guy, put into an awkward situation (or three), always just trying to make the best of everything (particularly saving himself from the aggravation of winding up in jail). Along the way, he makes some surprising revelations about himself... but not because he’s moved out of the big bad city back to the relative innocence of the small town. No, if anything, Jordy finds just as much evil lurking in Mirabeau as he ever did in Boston; this isn’t a preachy “message” book with that kind of agenda. What Jordy learns, he learns about himself--about the choices he makes, and about his own capacity for change. And yeah... thankfully, he doesn’t have to go to jail in order to do so.
I’m looking forward to getting caught up on this entertaining series, now that I’ve finally found it. :)
GlamKitty rating: 4.5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)  

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