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Well, kiss my grits. Just tease your hair put on those red stiletto heels, and let's enter an almost mythical place called small-town America. Bitchy back-biting, and even greed and murder are here, but so are goodness and kindness, real girlfriends, and even true love.
Dramatis personae: Honey Ingersoll, a scrappy woman, not born to money who, by dint of old-fashioned determination and motherwit has carved out space in what was the man's world of wheeling and dealing; Sam Ridley, Honey's boss, her current flame, who, unfortunately announces his engagement to the very wealthy and desireable Lila Lott, daughter of the state's star senator; Mrs. Otis, Sam's administrative assistant who acts like everyone's mom; Tallulah Bixby who, with her sugardaddy blue Caddy and big hair, does not last long on this stage; Matt Romeros, the county sheriff, a really good guy, and easy on the eyes, too; Amelia Swope, Honey's gal pal, whose wifebeating ex, Joe, is threatening her, and upon whom her house is being foreclosed upon because her day job is minding the children; Cletus X. Dwyer, banker and son of a banker who can be sweet-talked into extending forgiveness of mortgages not yet paid to damsels in distress; Trey Gregson, Senator Lott's assistant, a hatchet-faced playboy; Charles and Chester Ames, brothers and owners of International Properties, who have been buying up played-out farmland on Pea Pike; Violet Norton, crusty old lady not long for this world, owner of a farm that the developers are eyeing; Earl Norton, a hard man, Violet's nephew, not unfamiliar with a rifle.
MURDER ON PEA PIKE, not Jean Harrington's first book, may be made to thrill us with the idea of transgressions committed, then rooted out, the transgressor being made to pay for unsettling a community's fabric. However, its real work is to portray the fabric of an American small town. Arkansas is a state not much discussed as a center for business, intellectual development, or the arts; but places like small towns in Arkansas are home to real human beings who love and hate and scheme, who do make art, think, and put together deals, and this fact is what Harrington's book is here to remind us of. In MURDER ON PEA PIKE, with deft strokes, Harrington sketches Honey and Amelia's thin lease on success in a town without boundless choices or resources. I have known people like Violet and Earl Snope who are hard because the ground is hard, because farming is hard, because the world has ground them down and given nothing in return. There is evil in the world which will stop only when it is dead, and it is fueled by greed, and there is good which is good because it is fueled by hope and love, by a desire to follow mom's old sayings, by a desire never to let friends down. There are those who momentarily forget these things because they are young, or drunk, or they forgot. There is the process or humanely bringing these transgressors back to caring, back to their real selves.
The plot is intricate because the players and their backgrounds are fleshed out in the pages, but briefly, Honey, still new at the real estate game, works hard for each sale. When a client wishes to look at an abandoned farmhouse, Honey goes to meet the client but finds instead a dead woman, dressed to kill, but not dressed to die. Later, following up on a rumor that a property down the road from the farmhouse is being sold by a rival real estate firm, Honey visits the opinionated old woman who owns the place, only to find that she, too, has been murdered.
Meanwhile, Honey's boss, Sam, and Honey's lovelight, has fallen hard for a slick beauty, Senator Lott's daughter. Honey spends the novel trying to get over Sam, while she finds herself thinking rather often of the county's handsome and decent sheriff, Matt. Honey's continued curiosity concerning why high rollers from out of town are suddenly very interested in worn-out farmland leads her closer to power, money, greed, and murder. Fortunately, the growing attraction between Honey and sheriff Matt Romeros means that at least someone in the know is watching out for her safety.
My telling of the plot does not give enough of the novel's flavor, but my listing of the characters makes some strides in that direction. Harrington's pages are full of catty looks at rival's clothing choices, drawled comments that are double-barreled, and everyone knows it but plays the game; the scent of perfume, a hidden bottle of bourbon, and always the knowledge that one must live by one's wits, but in so doing, one tastes the delight of living.
§ Cathy Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. She teaches American Literature and is a fan of the well-turned whodunit.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, August 2017
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