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by Earlene Fowler
Berkley Prime Crime, May 2004
271 pages
ISBN: 042519597X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Benni Harper is the kind of friend almost anyone would want. She can always find time in her busy schedule to help her friends when they are in a bind. Shawna and Johnny Abbott are trying to save the Broken DIS ranch, which has been in Shawna's family since God was in short pants.

Things would have been OK, except that Shawna has only been living on the ranch for about two years, and her dad Joe just up and died. Johnny's not a farm-boy and has a bit of a temper. The ranch is in financial difficulties, compounded by the unexpected expense of Joe's funeral, and the dude ranch just has to pull it all together for them. So Benni and her grandmother Dove work their separate networks and have the first two weeks of the season booked to the hilt. One of the guests is, for good or ill, the nationally-known travel writer, The Secret Traveler. A good review from TST could really put The Broken DIS Ranch over the top.

Naturally, things don't go smoothly. Benni's cousin Rita is on the outs with her rodeo-riding, skirt-chasing, louse of a husband Skeeter; rather than leave Rita home with Gabe, Benni brings her along to help waitress. Rita rates lots of big tips from the hunters, lots of tsk-ing from the quilters, lots of headaches for Benni because Rita's idea of work and Benni's only overlap slightly.

Whip, one of the ranch hands, has some underlying resentments. He and Shawna hooked up for a little while, but it didn't last. Shawna is obviously over it, since she married Johnny Abbott. Whip isn't. Plus he had some expectations, perhaps unfounded, about what would happen when Joe died. Whip was Joe's foster child, had lived and worked on the ranch for years, and resents Johnny's taking over both Shawna and the ranch. Johnny is well aware of Whip's feelings; they push each other's buttons very well, which makes for a lot of tense moments, especially when Shawna is around.

One of the quilters is a retired forensic anthropologist. While the quilters are out on a scenic horse-back ride, one of the dogs brings back a bone which the anthropologist recognizes as a human femur. The bone is an old bone, but not an ancient bone. Whose body is buried on the ranch? Who buried it? More to the point, who was trying to dig it up, and why?

The person sent to investigate the possible murder is not someone Benni wants to see. She has a post-marital history of sorts with this man, and Detective Ford Hudson makes her very nervous. He delights in teasing her, which makes her mad. This time around, his Cajun grandfather, Iry Gautreaux, is visiting. Iry is a hit with the ladies at the ranch, and keeps Hud from making Benni totally crazy.

Benni's husband Gabe has arrived a few days early, mostly because he knows Hud is on the scene. Then a bull gets loose. This bull has been sold, and is scheduled to be picked up the next day. Everyone who possible can help is sent out to hunt down this bull. For reasons which make a lot of sense at the time, Benni and Hud are partnered on the search. They find the bull just as a major thunderstorm hits, get it corralled, and are stuck overnight in a small cabin. Benni knows how delighted Gabe will be about this; so does Hud.

While trying to keep the dude ranch functioning smoothly, keep Gabe and Hud from driving her (and each other) nuts, and figure out who The Secret Traveler is, Benni is looking at old relationships with an eye to discovering who the body used to be. This brings her, as other investigations have done, face to face with how little she knows about her past, and particularly about her father and his life. This is never a comfortable place for Benni.

Earlene Fowler keeps all these plates in the air with consummate skill. I've been reading the series in order, but had to skip the the two right before BROKEN DISHES in order to review this in a timely fashion. I think, based on her other talents, that a reader wouldn't have to read the books in order, but I know that each new book builds on the previous books, so there is a richness that comes from having all the back stories in one's mind.

I like Benni Harper. She is a strong female character, willing to take hard looks at the person she is and the situations in which she finds herself. She has grown since the first book in the series, FOOL'S PUZZLE. She is by no means perfect, but she tries to be a good person and do the right thing. Fowler's characters may not always be people you'd want in your immediate circle, but they are real people, people you'd run into in the course of your life. The situations are sometimes a little unreal, but that's the nature of a murder mystery series: we just don't all have dead bodies turning up with startling regularity. Bearing that in mind, the circumstances in Benni's life are otherwise very realistic, very likely to happen to ordinary people. I like that; it gives me some connection to the story.

The Benni Harper series is a classic cozy series. If that's what you like, you are in for another good read in Broken Dishes. If you are looking for a new author, start at the beginning and work (although work is too harsh a term for the enjoyment coming your way) your way through the series. You will be glad you did.

Reviewed by P. J. Coldren, May 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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