Minotaur/A Thomas Dunne Book/St. Martin’s Press, 2016
The 23rd entry in Crider’s Dan Rhodes series, and as good an example of the series as you are likely to find. Which means it’s an extremely well-plotted, fair-play mystery with a collection of realistic and interesting characters. (One of the strengths of this series is that even the bad guys are believable and often seem like fairly sympathetic characters; in general, there’s no one you really dislike.)
We begin with Sheriff Rhodes foiling a robbery at the local Pak-a-Sak convenience store, on his day off, and proceed to his going out—still on his day off—to investigate a reported robbery on the property of Billy Bacon (loan officer at the local bank, half-assed cattle rancher, and former local high school football star). There is, as it turns out, a cardboard sign in the back of Bacon’s pick-up that’s relevant, and a body in the barn. The dead man, Melvin Hunt, earned—scraped—a living doing welding jobs and any other work he could pick up.
There are also small plots of marijuana scattered around the vicinity, with a unique method of protecting them from disturbance.
The usual characters appear (Hack, the dispatcher, and Lawton, the jailer, continue to make Rhodes’ job something of a trial; Jennifer Loam’s on-line news service gets a boost from the investigation; and Seepy Benton—math teacher, songwriter, ghost hunter, and, now, advocate for marijuana legalization; deputies Ruth and Buddy) and it’s nice to see them. The subordinate characters (Hunt’s wife, her sister, and her sister’s husband; Bacon himself and his wife—who has a medical problem; Able Terrell and his separatist compound; Gene Gunnison) are well conceived, well developed, and important parts of the story. And Hunt’s dogs (Gus-Gus and Jackie) behave like real dogs, and also turn out to be important.
Rhodes muses somewhat more than usual on his growing-up years, which I found interesting.
These books are sometimes considered to be somewhat “cozy,” which I, to be honest, don’t entirely understand. Rhodes is a settled, well-adjusted person, with a stable and, more than that, happy, home life. The recurring characters are either quirky or interesting. But the murders are not sugar-coated, there are real deaths of real people, and we see the results in clear (and clear-eyed) fashion. The investigations are carried out realistically and often place Rhodes in some jeopardy, and he needs both his wits and his willingness to respond with force, to get himself out of trouble. So while there’s not a lot of blood-and-gore, these are books with a fairly substantial core, in which real people die unpleasant deaths, in which a real cop pursues real investigations (with risks that must be faced and overcome), and in which real people, with whom we may have some sympathy, face the very real consequences of their actions.
The books are very well written, very readable, but with steel at their core. And I love them.