Dave Wood's Book Report, July 30, 2008
The late Carol Bly knew her way around small Minnesota towns, having spent much of her life in places like Madison, Minn., as her first book, "Letters from the Country" made abundantly clear.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in her posthumously published novel, "Shelter Half, (Holy Cow! Press, $15.95). Bly opens her mystery cum social anthropology fiction with the discovery of a dead body along Hwy. 53 near St. Fursey, Minn., by a transplanted German, thought by the townsfolk to be somewhat odd.
Bly profiles Dieter Stolz with great precision, then segues to the town's police chief, its car dealer, its social worker, its Episcopalian priest and on down the line until we have a population faced with moral choices, romantic interludes, all the stuff that makes a small town go around.
Sure, it's social anthropology, but it's not dull. When the going gets heavy, Bly drops a funny moment that finds this reader, a small town guy, guffawing and thinking "Isn't that JUST the way it is?" Here she is on a small town's reaction to murder:
"This particular roadside murder had its tiny blessings. The victim was not local so no one had to feel guilty about not mourning. You could just enjoy it. The crime was violent enough to be interesting -- murder and probably rape -- so although St. Fursey people might intuitively decide that the perpetrator wasn't a local, they would speculate aloud to one another anyhow. The usual local suspects -- who this November were St. Fursey's six year-round trash types, one bad summer people kid and one old naturalized foreigner -- would be raked out again. The old foreigner was the least intriguing since his only crime was to have been an infantryman on the wrong side during World War II. Still, the wits sipping coffee at Denham's usually shared a three-part philosophy: a) you never really knew did you? And b) you can't tell, not for sure you can't, and c) frankly, they'd always been afraid something like this would happen. Their loose-limbed ideas left the field open for anybody."
Bly has never sentimentalized small town life. Take a look:
""Whoever said the meek shall inherit the Earth didn't know anything about being on the bottom of the system in your own hometown. And another thing, Brad Stropp was sure of: those ancient people like Jesus got to live outdoors all the time, keeping sheep from falling into hot sandy ravines and kicking back with strangers at wells and saying wise things which people actually stayed to hear --nothing was like that now, and people weren't like that now .... Judea was not like St. Fursey with its 1,000-plus people whose shit list never changed. No matter how true some insight you told some one, if it was something they'd never heard before, they jeered at you."
Ever hear of a 5-foot-2-inch male private eye. Minnesota author Carl Brookins has. His gumshoe is named Sean NMI Sean. Sean is pronounced SHAWN and NMI stands for No Middle Initial. Sean stars in Brookins latest book, "The Case of the Greedy Lawyers," (Nodin Press, $15.95). As the book opens, Sean NMI Sean is visited by a woman who was sent by a lawyer with whom the detective has had many run-ins. Why would he recommend Sean? Then the woman shows up dead and the fun begins.
Mary Logue ("Maiden Rock" and other novels about Pierce County, Wis.) says that Sean is one of the shortest, wisest, funniest P.I.s I have had the pleasure of hanging out with in a long time."
Here's the ultimate book for animal lovers: "The Rhino with Glue-on Shoes, edited by Lucy Spelman and Ted Mashima (Delacorte, $22). Spelman and Mashima are high-powered veterinarians who have cobbled together an olio of stories about animals in trouble who have been treated by talented medical people. Read about a root canal performed on a 3,000 pound hippo, spinal surgery on a kangaroo, a moray eel diagnosed with anorexia. This fascinating book is punctuated with a series of color photos of animals printed on glossy paper.
Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.