A review of regional authors reveals a taste for gumshoes

06/13/2014 7:00 AM

06/14/2014 8:10 PM

Capturing the character of an entire region — say, the span from the Ozarks to the Kansas City metro area — in just a few descriptive pen strokes is a move best left to fiction writers. Any generalization about the people or the culture would be pure fiction.

The assortment of novels recently published by writers with ties to the Kansas City area is broad. We travel from 1890 London to present-day Nepal and India and on to the dark underbelly of NCAA Division I sports at a school in Florida.

Some of the books are set in our own backyard. Four of the six involve detectives. Most of them run rampant with corruption.

Matthew McBride of Rosebud, Mo., has just released “A Swollen Red Sun” (243 pages; Mysterious Press; $14.99). It’s set in Gasconade County, Mo., near Hermann, regionally famous for its beautiful vineyards. But in this novel it’s lumped in with other towns that have been battling Missouri’s reputation as the methamphetamine capital of the nation, a decade-long distinction finally overcome last year when the state fell to No. 3.

The dark world of drug cooking and dealing drives McBride’s story, but the narrative also includes plenty of lovely and accurate descriptions.

“Olen poured a strong cup of coffee and watched the long dandelions bend and sway in the fields below the window. … Particles of dust and dog pelt swam in the hot air he passed through as he stepped onto the porch. … The air tasted like corn smelled, and the ground was a blanket of leaves.”

Deputy Sheriff Banks, good cop and great family man, is surrounded by corruption and doesn’t know it. Not above acting unethically himself, he steals a stash of $52,000 he finds hidden in a cat’s litter box in a meth lab trailer.

“He felt bad about the money. Drug money though it was. He’d stolen it, and that knowledge played hell on his conscious. One way or another, he had to give the money back. But he couldn’t give it back. Or wouldn’t give it back.”

In this portrait of Gasconade County everyone is connected in some way, and Banks knows it’s not possible to keep the stolen money a secret. It’s just a matter of time before someone comes looking for it. And he’ll stop at nothing to keep his family safe.

“A Plot for Pridemore” (297 pages; Mercer University Press; $20), by Kansas City’s Stephen Roth, is a refreshing, fast-paced read about the fictional town of Pridemore, Mo. And it offers a lighter take on the topic of corruption.

Pridemore’s longtime mayor, Monroe Tolliver, recalls the hustle and bustle his town once knew, but, “That was one hell of a long time ago, the mayor thought as he gazed out his car window at the empty storefronts and boarded-up buildings lining Main Street.”

The mayor wants nothing more than to revitalize his town. Just when he thinks he’s out of ideas, he hits on something — a plot that will change everything.

The mayor meets with four of his closest friends, all community leaders. He tells them, “I want to create an event that will stir peoples’ hearts and minds. I want something so simple and dramatic to happen here that every news broadcast and every newspaper in America will lead in with a dateline from Pridemore, Missourah.”

The plan works beautifully, up to a point.

This is certainly a plot-driven novel, but numerous well-drawn characters pop off the pages. Much of the story hinges on developmentally challenged Digby Willers, 22, who competes in the Cub Scouts’ Pinewood Derby each year.

“Digby wore army fatigue cut-offs, an orange T-shirt smeared with peanut butter and jelly, and a Cub Scout cap that sat on the back of his head like a navy blue beanie. He had a round face with cheeks that turned crimson at the first sign of embarrassment, and thick lips that curled into a slow, open-mouthed smile. His hair, yellow as lemon custard, rolled over his ears in long bangs that gave him a Prince Valiant look. Digby cared very little about that. He just knew he hated getting haircuts.”

Roth will sign copies of his novel at 1 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble in Zona Rosa, 8625 N.W. Prairie View Road.

Another Kansas Citian, Elissa Durwood Grodin, has just released “Death By Hitchcock: An Edwina Goodman Mystery” (208 pages; Cozy Cat Press; $14.95).

The police force is clear of corruption in his novel, but the faculty and students in the film department at fictional East Coast Cushing College aren’t operating aboveboard.

How are the murders of a unanimously hated film student and almost anonymous townie related? Edwina Goodman, assistant professor of physics, is determined to make the connection — she’ll even use the Pythagorean theorem as a sleuthing tool.

The theme of spoiled children runs through the book and ultimately is one of the clues Edwina uses to solve the mystery of the murders, the first of which takes place during a Hitchcock film festival organized by the college.

“The body of a well-dressed young woman had been placed in the toilet, practically folded in half at the waist, her slender bottom shoved into the water. Will checked for a pulse, but it was obvious the girl was dead. On the walls inside the stall a message was scrawled in lipstick: Revenge is sweet and not fattening.”

Grodin’s word choice and amusing character names keep the tone of the book light and entertaining. Some of the key players are Bunny Baldwin, Mary Buttery, Chaz Winner, Honeysuckle Blessington, Nedda Cake, and Oona Clifton.

Light and entertaining does not fit Topeka resident Alex Grecian’s tale of degeneracy and suspense. “The Devil’s Workshop” (386 pages; Putnam; $26.95) is an unapologetically dark nail-biter.

It’s London, 1890, and a train has derailed and smashed through the side of a prison. Four or five — we’re not sure — murderers escape, but not by the hole in the wall; someone with a key has released them into the night.

It’s up to Detective Inspector Walter Day and 20 of his colleagues to scour London for the escapees before they can resume their reign of terror.

The stakes are high for Detective Day: his wife is nine months pregnant and leaving her means leaving her vulnerable. And one of the murderers, Cinderhouse, has a personal grudge against Day and happens to love little children — not in a good way.

we begin to understand that this was no ordinary prison break. It turns out that Karstphanomen, a secret society, was involved. In fact, Day’s own mentor, Detective Inspector March, is a member.

“There are doctors among us, Walter. Does that surprise you? The Karstphanomen has doctors, lawyers, Lords. … Yes, even policemen. There’s a member of the royal family among us. We are not madmen. We are enthusiastic proponents of justice,” March informs Day.

Aside from this curveball, Day also discovers that one of the escapees is none other than Jack the Ripper.

This book is the third in Grecian’s “Murder Squad” series.

Perhaps the most troubling portrait of corruption in this diverse collection of books is Lawrence native Jennifer Gabou’s novel about NCAA Division I sports, “Division I” (233 pages; iUniverse; $16.95).

Gabou presents the world of college athletics as a place so full of drugs, cheating, abortions, disease and back-stabbers that it’s impossible to imagine anyone aspiring to be a part of it or allowing their child to participate.

The focus of the novel is 18-year-old Ally Lancaster, a freshman who’s a star tennis player. She’s not only fresh to the world of college sports and constantly surprised by the vipers’ nest she has fallen into, but she’s a nondrinking, virgin Christian who won’t compromise her beliefs.

Though the novel is told in third person, it often reads like a diary: “Never before had anyone said they wanted her. It was like the door to her heart swung open and there he was dangling the key.”

Chasin, a loudmouthed football player who initially comes off as an extreme egotist, eventually falls in love with Ally, even agreeing to start attending church services and give up drinking and swearing.

Early in their courtship, Chasin rents a beach cottage. “She had awakened his inner child. He was so excited he started jumping on the bed, making Ally’s body bounce with the force. They both started to laugh and jump together holding hands, screeching, and messing around.”

Ultimately, Ally draws in many of her peers with her sterling ethics, and they see that there’s another way to live not involving immoral activities. This is Gabou’s first novel.

Finally, a book that has little in common with the others is Prajwal Parajuly’s “The Gurkha’s Daughter” (228 pages; Quercus; $22.95), a collection of short stories. Parajuly was a 2012 writer-in-residence at, and 2006 graduate of, Truman State University in Kirksville.

Parajuly’s stories are windows into a world of the Nepalese and Indian caste system and the prejudice and superstition that haunts it.

In the title story, an astrologer confirms that the Gurkha’s daughter is bad luck for the Gurkha, one of a clan of fierce Nepalese soldiers serving with the British army. The family attempts to transfer the curse to the girl’s best friend, who’s a member of a lower caste.

The friend’s bad luck includes a job transfer to the United Kingdom, and the Gurkha’s daughter is miserable without her friend but seems to agree that it’s OK for this lower class of person to take on her bad fortune.

This acceptance of one’s preordained role in life is a feature that distinguishes this book from many others. The last story in the collection, “The Immigrants,” is about two Nepalese immigrants in New York City who try to forge a relationship but find it impossible to overcome their class differences, even thousands of miles from home.

The young man, Amit, feels that he has assimilated to American culture, but when he and Sabitri move in together he struggles to sort through what his relationship should be with this lower-caste member who is working as a maid.

The notion that Sabitri is subservient to Amit is so ingrained in each of them that even as they fight against the idea, they begin to battle each other about it. She insists that she’s just his maid, he insists that she is his friend, his student, his roommate and possibly future wife.

“Should I have apologized? But it was she who kept ranting about being a maid. She was a maid, sure, but she was so much more than that. And what was she if not a maid?”

This collection is already a best-seller in South Africa and India.

Anne Kniggendorf is a former Star intern, who can be reached at akknigg@gmail.com.

Another emerging writer worth noting is Annie Fischer of Versailles, Mo. Fischer is a 2012 graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s master of fine arts program for creative writing.

She was a Durwood Scholar while at UMKC and recently was been awarded a nine-month Fulbright scholarship to Budapest to work on “Disambiguation,” a book about the life of a Hungarian classical pianist born in 1914 — who also happens to be named Annie Fischer.

Fischer is the assistant editor of a book about Grand Arts, a contemporary art project space in downtown Kansas City that for almost 20 years has helped national and international artists realize projects considered too risky, provocative or complex to attract the requisite funding and support otherwise.

The book, title still under wraps, will be released in mid-2015.

Her fiction has been published in Canteen, Sonora Review, Outpost journal, Village Voice and New Letters, and she has a blog on Ploughshares.

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