Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Community Mystery, Amateur Sleuth: 'TIL DIRT DO US PART, Edith Maxwell

Summer reading -- what a great season to indulge in mysteries that balance plot and character and an intense sense of location ... in this case, Massachusetts, not far from the coast. Hmm, that puts me in a summer vacation mood, just thinking about it! Skip the traffic jams by heading out early with your own selection of books for the beach or the mountain cabin. Here's another good one:

In the second of her "Local Foods Mystery" series, Edith Maxwell proves she's on for the long haul -- writing mysteries that tap into her own New England vegetable gardening "roots," and her tech systems know-how. But most of all, Maxwell works from on two well-polished strengths: a fine sense of how to pace the plot of a traditional mystery, and an Agatha Christie-like understanding of how people come to threaten and sometimes actually do bad things.

Market gardener Cam Flaherty kept her mostly organic farm on target through Maxwell's first in the series, A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die. At the opening of 'TIL DIRT DO US PART, she's hosting a dinner to celebrate the achievements of her first farm season. A pair of long tables with white cloths on them, a menu of local tasty offerings,  a professional chef preparing the dishes -- even this is one of Cam's great results, as Jake, the chef, is her current flame and clearly appreciates her.

But there's trouble afoot on the first page, as wealthy and irritable customer Irene Burr challenges Cam and then proves she can get into an argument with almost anyone at the dinner, from her own son to a local hog farmer. By the end of the first chapter, Irene's clearly in hot water of her own making. Even the energetic young woman mechanic attending the dinner on the arm of carpenter Bobby Burr -- Irene's son, and another of Cam's flirtable interests -- seems caught up in the whirlwind of nastiness that Irene creates. Cam witnsesses this final flurry:
"Listen, Mrs. Burr." Sim's voice boiled. ... "Your Jaguar runs like a real wildcat, and it's all my doing."

"You're not a Jaguar-trained technician is my only point." Irene raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms. ...

"It's an engine. A foreign engine. I speak its language. That's all I need to know. Oh, and by the way? Ever hear of computers? Anything I don't know, I have at my fingertips." Sim planted her feet in a wide stance and folded her arms. "If you don't like my work, feel free to drive twenty miles down to the dealership and let them take your money."

Bobby pulled at Sim's sleeve. "We gotta run. Good night, everybody."

Irene nodded and turned away. Sim stared after Irene. Her face was so red, Cam thought she could see flames coming from her ears.

"I'm going to get her, one way or the other," Sim muttered.

As Wes walked by, he snorted. "Take a number, honey."
So it's not really a surprise when the next chapter reveals Irene's been killed. (I won't say how; it could put you off your breakfast.) As police attention veers from one of Cam's customers to the next and the next, Cam can't help trying to find out the truth: If everyone had a reason to dislike Irene Burr, was there one person with "means, opportunity, and motive" to invoke the worst reaction?

Of course, trying to solve a crime while keeping a fragile community-centered business going and while trying to sort out one's love life gets complicated quickly. Especially when the police interest in Cam appears to turn personal (triple complicated!). And threats multiply. Cam's got to solve the case or risk everything.

Maxwell's clever blend of farm and garden knowledge with crisp scene-after-scene pacing makes a great update to the classic village mystery style. Her deft portraits of community members like Irene and Alexandra, Cam's most particular customer, remind me of the reason village mysteries have always appealed: We love the insight and the revelation that a thoughtful person, well motivated, can bring to her community. Count on Maxwell to continue the series, too; even if Cam solves this murder, she's sure to have threads still dangling from her life as a single woman with her own creative labor and the energy of her relationships.

Speaking of Cam's relationships -- Maxwell adds at the end of the book a pair of recipes from Chef Jake's exquisite preparation of Cam's veggies. What else is heating up besides dinner? Cam needs to make some decisions!

Check in with Edith Maxwell at her author website,, where the events schedule shows she won't be tied down to her own garden too much this summer -- hope you can make it to one of these, to ask her how she balances writing with all the rest!


Edith Maxwell said...

Thanks so much, Beth! I'm so pleased you liked the book - and what an awesome review.

Beth Kanell said...

Thanks for the good book to work from, Edith!