RogerBW's Blog

The Hot Pink Farmhouse, David Handler 26 March 2019

2002 mystery, second in the Berger and Mitry series. Berger is settling in for the autumn to write a book about westerns, but small town politics and crime won't leave him alone; and the crime is Mitry's job too. Someone's blown up in her car on her way back from an illicit rendezvous, and she seems to have had a remarkable number of enemies.

As before, the viewpoint shifts between Berger and Mitry; each of them has people who are happy to talk to them, and give away things they wouldn't say to the other. They meet intermittently to catch up, but the overall flow of information to the reader is smooth.

The murder isn't the only thing going on: Mitry is settling into her new job as local state trooper, having previously been a detective with the Major Crimes unit, and former colleagues can't believe she isn't trying to fight her way back in. There's local vandalism. There's argument over whether the local school should be repaired, or demolished and replaced by a new one – which would open up the small town to more development. There's a famously reclusive sculptor who talks freely to Berger (who, as before, tends to get things very easy, though he doesn't notice it – but Handler clearly does).

One thing that's particularly effective is the way everything wraps back on itself to keep the cast small: the femme fatale estate agent is working for (and possibly having an affair with) the real-estate developer, whose wife is on the school board and trying to drive out the school's head, who's married to the sculptor's agent… and so on. It feels somewhat incestuous but plausible for a small town where the same people tend to be movers and shakers in multiple fields.

The characters manage to be interestingly complex, too; the real-estate man is the way those people always are, but he's deluding himself into thinking that his sustainable development will be good for the town because it wouldn't be as bad as the general bulldoze-and-strip-mall that other developers would set up.

"And what about that Jesus Saves thing on his knuckles?"

"He saw God for a while," Tim answered dryly. "I don't think he sees him anymore. Or maybe he just didn't like the odds God was giving him."

It's unfortunate that the mystery itself is entirely straightforward if you aren't fooled by the obvious red herrings. The rest of the book is great, with ambiguous characters and a plot that holds together; but it's built round the core of the mystery and that isn't strong enough to hold everything else together.

Still, I'll read more if only for the people. Followed by The Bright Silver Star.

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Previous in series: The Cold Blue Blood | Series: Berger and Mitry | Next in series: The Bright Silver Star

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