Sunday, March 11, 2012
The Skirt Man [Hardcover] review
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In this sequel to Tabula Rasa (2005), the house fire that kills Morgan Mason, an eccentric old farmer (aka "the Skirt Man"), in Killdeer, N.Y., is so bizarre that some of his neighbors suspect spontaneous human combustion. State trooper Sebastian Bly and fire marshal Billy Nightingale uncover the more prosaic and heart-wrenching truth, assisted by Annie Bly, a rather ditzy reporter for the local newspaper. Given Edgar-nominee Reuben's two decades working in the male-dominated field of fire investigation, it's baffling to see her write a book almost devoid of independent female characters. Annie, the narrator, is defined by her titles—Sebastian's wife, Billy's sister, mother of teen ballet star Meredith—while avoiding any associated responsibility, from her opening disclaimer of "I don't as a rule write books" to her desperate evasion when her boss attempts to make her editor-in-chief. The details of the investigation are fascinating; Reuben writes what she knows, and it shows. Too bad she doesn't extend that to writing about capable, professional women. (June)
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Newspaperwoman Annie Bly lives in an idyllic upstate New York town where good-natured teens always converse brightly with their elders, and the village assessor is "a cross between Mom's apple pie and a Shakespeare sonnet." But evil outsiders soon invade this cozy world in the form of a tabloid TV producer and a sleazy entrepreneur, Domingo Nogales Ramirez, who transforms the Hobby Hills Horse Farm into a rundown "rock resort" that draws "every emaciated, drugged out, boozed up, leftover hippy, beatnik, and teenaged wannabe punk rocker within a radius of 500 miles." (Who knew beatniks could be so menacing, man!) After both men become suspects in the murder of a reclusive farmer (known as Skirt Man for his unconventional sartorial choices), Annie teams with her state-trooper husband and fire-marshal brother to crack the case. Reuben, a certified fire inspector, knows how to craft a realistic, flame-touched crime scene and deliver a competent mystery. And although the rest of the story might not be so convincing, she moves it along at a clean, brisk pace. Frank Sennett
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