Saturday, April 22, 2017

A twofer: Shotgun Saturday Night & Cursed to Death by Bill Crider (Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mysteries)

A photographer I ain't.
I don't read a lot of mysteries, but occasionally one will cross my path that I'll find myself reading posthaste. In this case, it was two books that I breezed through in two days. Because they're so short, I decided to include them in the same post rather than separately.

Title: Shotgun Saturday Night
Author: Bill Crider
Series: Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mysteries
Genre: Mystery
Published: 1987 (originally), 1989 (Ivy Books reissue)
Publisher: Ivy Books
Format: Paperback
Pages: 169
Rating: ★★★★☆ 4 out of 5 stars.

The series, as the above says, centers on Dan Rhodes, the Sheriff of fictional Blacklin County, Texas. Shotgun Saturday Night is the second of the series and I started with it literally for no other reason than because none of the public libraries in my area have the first book, Too Late to Die. In any case, Blacklin is a small county of only twenty thousand and its sheriff department is even smaller, accounting only Rhodes, deputies Buddy (I don't believe his last name is ever given or if Buddy is even his real name) and Ruth Grady. I don't know if this is all of the deputies Rhodes has or not, but that seems awfully tiny for a sheriff's department. I know that Andy Taylor made do with just Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, but Blacklin County isn't exactly Mayberry.

Then there's Lawton and Hack Jensen. The former works as the department's jailer and the latter as the dispatcher. They're both well past retirement age, but work for the department for very little just for the sake of having something to do. My favorite running gag of the series revolves around them reporting to Rhodes about a call in of what at first seems like a serious crime but turns out to be nothing of consequence. They string him along by slowly revealing the details until finally revealing what it actually was. For example, in Shotgun Saturday Night, someone calls in about a dead body in a ditch. It's actually an inflatable sex doll.

Another important character is Ivy Daniels, Rhodes' girlfriend/fiancee. She acts as his sounding board and helps where she can with his investigations. Their relationship is a minor plotline, with him trying to process his feelings for her and if he wants it to lead to something more permanent.

Did I mention that this book has one of my favorite opening sentences?
Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.
It certainly hooked me.

While Shotgun Saturday Night is only 169 pages, you get a surprising amount of story for how brief it is. It starts off with local handyman Bert bringing in the arm and news that he found three boxes fill with severed limbs while clearing brush from a property. From there, the pace picks up with Bert being blown away by a shotgun. So Rhodes has to investigate both the body parts, Bert's murder, and whether there's any connection to the two. If that wasn't enough, he learns from Bert's mother that she heard motorcycles (or as her and Hack calls them, motorsickles) the night her son died. He then discovers that the local handyman was once a member of Los Muertos, a biker gang known to traffic in marijuana. Mrs. Ramsey also accuses a newcomer named Buster Cullens of the murder because he rides a motorcycle and is currently shacked up with a woman named Wyneva who had previously been living with (or in sin, as Mrs. Ramsey puts it) her son.

Then four members of Los Muertos show up because why not? From there, the plot speeds up. We find out that the severed limbs are nothing more than medical waste. A doctor had dumped the amputated limbs after taking tissue samples because he had no way of incinerating them. Nobody would have known if Bert hadn't spotted them under the brush pile.

Meanwhile, Rhodes gets his butt kicked a lot. He certainly didn't get elected sheriff based on his fisticuffs. He gets into three fights in Shotgun Saturday Night and wins one. Barely. To be fair, he got jumped by three bikers in the first fight and blindsided in the second. The third fight was one on one, but the other guy had a motorcycle, so it was an uneven battle. I don't want to spoil the main plot, but Bert's murder is not who you expect it to be.

All in all, Shotgun Saturday Night is a quick read, but worth picking up if you can find it.

What I liked: The cast of characters are memorable. I also enjoyed Rhodes struggling with solving Bert's murder. I'm not a fan with "super-sleuth" detectives who can solve crimes easily, I like when a character has to work and work at it until the case is solved. It adds a lot of realism to the story. The budding friendship between Ruth and Hack was also good. The latter is uncomfortable with the idea of a woman being a deputy, but over the course of the book, Ruth works him over with bribes and flattery until he finally accepts her.

What I didn't like: Nothing that I can think of.

Title: Cursed to Death
Author: Bill Crider
Series: Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mysteries
Genre: Mystery
Published: 1987 (Walker), 1989 (Ivy Books)
Publisher: Ivy Books
Format: Paperback
Pages: 171
Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5 stars

These books aren't certainly short, aren't they? In this one, Dr. Martin, a local dentist disappears after being "cursed" by a witch who had been renting a house from him. Shortly thereafter his wife is found murdered in their home. Rhodes has a number of suspects ranging from the aforementioned witch, another renter, and his wife (before she was killed). Meanwhile, it's the Christmas season and Rhodes is still dealing with his relationship with Ivy and whether to make their unofficial engagement official.

Honestly, not much happens in Cursed to Death. Unlike Shotgun Saturday Night, there's not three different plots running concurrently, just Dr. Martin's disappearance and his wife's murder. The resolutions to those cases are both equally surprising not least of which is because of the resolutions is accidental.

Something that did bug me is Betsy Higgins, the self-proclaimed witch. It's revealed that not only is she not a witch, but that she's a "man". I'm using air quotes because they appear to identify as a woman and not as a man. I don't know if their trans or not, so I can't rightly say that the Rhodes and the other characters referring to them with male pronouns is transphobic. I mean, this book came out in the late 80s, so you can't expect Bill Crider to have been aware of trans politics back then.

Things I liked: The crimes. Like I said before, I like when characters have to work hard at solving the mystery and Rhodes certainly had do just that. Ruth Grady if for nothing else than her non-ironic use of sentences such as "Freeze, scumbag!" and "I mean it, sucker!" She rapidly became my favorite character aside from Rhodes and Hack.

Things I didn't like: The issue with Betsy Higgins' gender identity. If Cursed to Death had been written more recently, maybe this part of the book would have been treated differently.

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