Book Reviews: A Simple Shaker Murder by Deborah Woodworth and A Wasteland of Strangers by Bill Pronzini

A Simple Shaker MurderA Simple Shaker Murder         
Deborah Woodworth
Avon Eos, April 2000
ISBN: 0-380-80425-5
Mass Market Paperback

Take one tortured father, one deeply troubled child, and add them to a small closed community called the North Homage Shaker community, sometime in the mid-thirties, somewhere in northern Kentucky. Now add an odd group of utopians calling themselves the New Owenites. It is a recipe for sudden death.

Saint Paul author Deborah Woodworth has, for the fourth time, presented mystery readers with an excellent mystery novel about the people who inhabit the fictional but very real Shaker community of North Homage. Periodically over the years in the United States, there have arisen a variety of religious and idealized societies, many of which were established and soon faded to become footnotes in history. Others persevered or made their mark on American culture and mores in various ways. Such are the Mennonites, the Shakers, Hutterites, the Ammana colony, and the Owenites, who espoused particular educational beliefs.

Woodworth has used her academic background in religious sociology to excellent effect in her series which features Sister Rose Callahan, a Shaker woman who combines the skills of a born administrator and a questioning mind with her strong religious belief to lead the community of North Homage, and to solve crimes.

Callahan is an excellent character, as are most of the other inhabitants of the community. Woodworth‘s skills as a writer continue to develop and she weaves this simple yet complex plot into a story that will challenge the reader to figure out the murder and the ending.

The New Owenites have come to North Homage to study Shaker beliefs and the daily applications of their doctrine. In part they are there to learn, but also, apparently desire to shape themselves and perhaps their Shaker hosts into something else altogether. Conflict inevitably rises between the two societies and when a New Owenite is found hanging from a tree in the orchard, emotions swirl out of control. While the police are quick to rule the hanging a suicide, Sister Rose is not so sure and when she discovers a disturbed child nearby, a child who may have witnessed the death, Sister Rose is moved to action, not only in her attempt to discover the truth of the man’s death, but to save the child as well. The solutions will delight you. A tasty traditional mystery.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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A Wasteland of StrangersA Wasteland of Strangers 
Bill Pronzini
Walker & Company, June 1999
ISBN: 0-8027-7560-8
Mass Market Paperback

This is another of Bill Pronzini’s intensive, commanding, explorations of then current social ideas and concerns which move a national colloquy in many forums. But this is not a social treatise full of statistics. This is a moving, intense, crime novel, that will captivate and enthrall the reader. Take one large, dangerous looking, individual, John Faith, by name. He’s a traveler, a seeker, a man on the move. Insert this stranger into a small resort community during the off season. This community happens to be in northern California, but such are the author’s skills, it could be anywhere. It could be your hometown.

John Faith is the immediate object of suspicion, because he’s a stranger and he doesn’t look like he belongs. His presence gradually reveals and widens long-standing cracks in the comfortable, biased attitudes and ideas of almost everyone in town. Why has this man come to town? What are his motives? His answers are enigmatic, and even at the end we are left with questions. John Faith’s encounters with the police chief, the bigoted lake-side resort owner, some local Native Americans, and a bartender or two, are like pebbles dropped in a placid pool. The ripples expand and expand until they reach the edge of the pool and die. Except in this case, the ripples grow larger, intersect and become irresistible waves that begin to tear at the base fabric of the town.

This psychological thriller is tightly plotted, and intricately presented. It’s pace is irresistible. A Wasteland of Strangers is a thoughtful, satisfying crime novel. Artist Doug Henry has presented a handsome, evocative cover illustration. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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