Murder in the Corn Maze by Gloria Alden, Willow Knoll Publishing, 2015. ISBN 9781511747264, 317 pp. $14.95.
Murder in the Corn Maze is Gloria Alden’s fifth Catherine Jewell gardening mystery set in Portage Falls, Ohio. This one features a local Halloween tradition of setting up a variation on the haunted house custom in a corn field, creating a maze with witches, ghosts, vampires, and zombies scattered through the cornfield of a local farm. Alden’s books are gentle traditional mysteries even if the killer uses a pitchfork or an axe. As many traditional mysteries are, these are set in a village, but Alden’s own vision of village life is what her novels grow out of. Her vision reminds me of my Russian friend’s saying that the best place to “build the human soul” is in the village. I’ve pondered what he meant. In a village we are known, for good or bad. Even if our good deeds are done quietly, they become known because we check on each other and talk about each other. Other people also take responsibility for us. It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child. In a village people reach out to those in need whether because they need funds for an operation or clothing and furniture because their house burned down. They also notice if certain teenagers are harming others and alert their neighbors.
In Portage Falls two new residents who open an auto repair shop combined with a coffee shop are targeted by a little teen gang of mischief makers, and nasty anti-gay slogans are painted on their storefront. Everyone in town figures out quickly who did it, and the one teen likely to be responsible is Trent Lawrence who bullies his friends Todd Williams and Ryan O’Brien, and all three are encouraged in their ugly behavior by their English teacher and drama coach Dale Bryant.
A pastor of a local church and part-time police office, gathers his parishioners to clean up the mess for the two new residents. The local police chief, John MacDougal, already has his eye on Trent and hopes to stop him before he does any more damage. He and other villagers hold Trent’s parents partly responsible for not curbing their son’s malicious behavior and for having spoiled him.
Catherine had met the boys when she was helping her art teacher friend Maggie Fiest work on the costumes for the Corn Maze. The main characters have already assessed the danger this little gang is to an essentially peaceful community.
The murder occurs during the first evening of the corn maze. It’s puzzling because the victim is the “coach” of the village bullies. Catherine has her brother with her for the maze, and it’s her friend Maggie who finds the body shortly after the murder. Catherine vows to stay out of this investigation, and knows her brother Michael and her boyfriend, the police chief, want her to, but if Maggie is suspected, she’ll have to get involved.
These villagers are essentially law-abiding. When newcomers arrive, they are checked out, and word spreads about them, be it good or bad.
In Alden’s vision of the village, the goal is to restore the peace and safety of the community. As people’s foibles become known, they are teased, but if they do harm, they are punished, and yet the hope of redemption hovers, if the culprit will mend his ways. In this series, the lead characters, Catherine and John MacDougal, are like the king and queen of a mythical village. He is just and responsible, but fully human, and she lives out her compassion, readily admitting to her own foibles. Alden knows her small towns well, and she invents characters we can love and admire as well as those who disrupt the equanimity of the village and must be punished.
Gloria Alden writes the Catherine Jewell Mystery series: The Blue Rose, Daylilies for Emily’s Garden, Ladies of the Garden Club, The Body in the Goldenrod, Murder in the Corn Maze, and a middle-grade book, The Sherlock Holmes Detective Club. Her published short stories include: “Cheating on Your Wife Can Get You Killed,” winner of the Love is Murder contest, “Mincemeat is for Murder”: and “The Body in the Red Silk Dress” in Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, “The Professor’s Books” in Fish Tales, “The Lure of the Rainbow” in Fish Nets, “Once Upon a Gnome,” in Strangely Funny, and “Norman’s Skeleton” in All Hallows Evil.
She lives on a small farm in NE Ohio with assorted critters: her collie Maggie, two house cats, a canary, two old African ring-necked doves, two ponies, and five rather old hens, plus one loud guinea fowl. She blogs with Writers Who Kill on Thursdays. Http://writerswhokill, blogspot.com.