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Book Review

Murder with a dose of drollery

‘Lawn Order’ keeps the puns coming

By Joseph Peschel
January 5, 2011

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If you think that a mystery writer who’d name her book “Lawn Order’’ would seed her fun, new novel with word play, you’d be right. Molly MacRae’s new mystery is an entertaining and suspenseful whodunit written by an author whose puns grow wild.

Margaret and her bickering sister Bitsy live in fictitious Stonewall, Tenn. Margaret runs Blue Plum Books, a small independent bookstore housed in the lower level of her home. She’s the retiring bookish sort with an often sardonic sense of humor, given to bon mots. Bitsy is a community-minded do-gooder, a member of the Townscape Committee, and a melodramatic busybody. As Margaret would say, “She’s the High Priestess of the Latter Day June Cleaver Society.’’

One day, Bitsy plops a dead pigeon on the bookstore’s counter. She claims Douglas “Duckie’’ Everett, a local guy turned rich by developing property into strip malls, has poisoned the pigeons in the park. Soon after the poisoning, the town’s welcome sign is defaced with green paint. Some crackpot fills a dumpster with manure, and an entire lawn and garden is sprayed with weed killer, spelling out obscenities. A fishpond blows up. Three goats dance on a police car. No one knows if the escalating acts of vandalism are the work of bored kids or a scuzzball with a grudge, or even if the incidents are related. Later, there’s a fire at Bertie’s Bank Tavern, a popular local restaurant, where there’s a death that turns out to be a murder. The police seem ineffective, and, eventually Margaret, prodded by Bitsy to be more civic-minded, decides to investigate. Actually, Margaret keeps lists of suspects and questions and insists she’s not investigating. It takes her a while to start her inquiry, but as interest in her lists heats up, she’s left with no choice.

MacRae gives Margaret, who narrates the book, a whimsical and often witty way of saying things. Margaret, for instance, doesn’t breathe in diesel fumes; she sucks in a “lungful of eau de diesel.’’ She doesn’t go to the restroom, “she skips to the loo.’’ One of her lists is headed Dichotomy of Vandalism “because it’s not often I get the chance to use the word dichotomy, much less put it in bold black letters at the top of the page with such a flourish.’’

MacRae’s other characters are colorful oddballs. Phil, inspired by Rousseau, writes Stonewall a town anthem, “Lawn Order.’’ The town cop, George, is something of a philosopher who totes around a copy of Sartre. George is an old near-flame of Margaret’s and he’s jealous, since Margaret has a thing for the mysterious new architect in town, Gene Mashburn. Gene’s more her type: He reinvents the Reuben sandwich — it’s made with kimchi instead of sauerkraut and he calls it the Seoul Food Reuben.

Like any cozy mystery, murder is treated tangentially — almost as if happening offstage. MacRae, however, portrays murder in a subtle and sometimes macabre humorous way. Her eccentric and wacky characters, fretting, philosophizing, and punning along the way, cultivate a wry plot that grows into a full-blown mystery. Some might compare Margaret to Agatha Christie’s crusty Miss Marple. But snarky, middle-aged Margaret, the independent-book-store-owner-sleuth, entertains us as much as Nero Wolfe’s smart aleck sidekick, Archie Goodwin.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his website at josephpeschel.com.

LAWN ORDER

By Molly MacRae

Five Star, 320 pp., $25.95