Murder of a Beauty Shop Queen by Bill Crider
There are a few absolute certainties in my life...the sun will rise in the east, my love for my family will never diminish, cats are smarter than dogs but they just won't deign to prove it, and I will never be able to overcome my gene for snarkiness. Also certain is that I will gobble up the latest Dan Rhodes mystery by Bill Crider. Rhodes is the sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, and Murder of a Beauty Shop Queen is the nineteenth novel in the series and it's a corker.
Lynn Ashton, a beautician working at the Beauty Shack, is found dead in the shop, battered by her hairdryer. Lynn had a reputation for dating married men, although specifics were missing from the rumor mill. Suspicion, however, is immediately thrown to two Hispanic vagrants who are living in a vacant building across the street from the Beauty Shack. The vagrants appear to have some connection with a nearby "reclaimation center" (a fancy term for a junkyard) whose owners are hidden by layers of shell companies. Rhodes discovers the body of an antique shop owner, shot through the head; the victim happened to be the last person to have an appointment with Lynn Ashton.
Rhodes is a smart and decent man, patient with the minutia of his life and of small town living. His wife wants him to stick to his diet but he often stops by the local Dairy Queen. He loves his dogs more than he does the cat. He insists that he is nothing like Sage Barton, the fictional adventure hero who happens to be modeled on Rhodes, but secretly he enjoys the comparison. He sometimes gets his own back at his dispatcher and his jailer (both of whom love to gossip and to draw their stories -- and, at times, information about current cases -- out). He patiently deals with feral hogs and pregnant goats and whatever else may be bothering the citizens of Blacklin County. He's respectful to those who deserve his respect and politic to others. He's not apt to jump to conclusions about people or about his cases. He has an instinctive feeling when he's missing something that he should remember about the case.
Bill Crider has always presented a fairly-clued mystery. His easy style is well-fitted to the rural mysteries Dan Rhodes encounters. But Crider offers something more -- a spot-on depiction of small-town life with its day to day concerns. The town of Clearview has fallen on hard times. The downtown section has all but been abandoned for the big box stores near a major highway. Main Street itself is crumbling. Businesses that once were bustling are now struggling to survive; many other businesses have gone belly-up. Times have changed and many of the residents feel this change is for the worse. (Heck, they are even not making Dr. Pepper with real sugar any more.) Rhodes can sympathize with those feelings, but he also realizes every age is nostalgic for the times of its youth. Times may not be worse, just different. Crider works his magic in a way to make today's hard times an additional and important character in the book.
Because of this, Murder of a Beauty Shop Queen takes a slightly darker tone than many of the previous novels in the series, but Rhodes is still Rhodes and Blacklin County is still populated with many of the well-drawn characters we have met before in the series. There are in-jokes and references (Chen Shuan martial arts, Ray Slater, "alcohol was involved," and others), comments on old paperback books and electronic publishing, the state of newspapers, and references to television shows, westerns, and popular singers.
Make no mistake about it, Bill Crider is a major writer. He is also a deceptive writer. He makes it all look so damned easy, but he has taken the rural cozy mystery and has elevated it to provide a snapshot of where we are today as a people. And he makes the whole thing highly enjoyable.