THE BLACKLIN COUNTY FILES (2012) by Bill Crider
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
As far as I can remember, my first experience with Bill Crider’s work came when I read his marvelous, not-to-be-missed “Cranked” in 2007, when it subsequently won the Derringer Award for the best mid-length short story of 2006. Since then I’ve read a couple of other short stories under his byline and a western novella, Dead Man’s Revenge, that he wrote using the pseudonym Colby Jackson. A prolific writer, he’s the author of several different mystery series as well as horror, western, and young adult novels. His longest-running mystery series stars Texas Sheriff Dan Rhodes, who is featured in the six stories in the e-book under consideration here. (NOTE: the cover says it contains five stories, the title page six. The title page wins—and so does the reader with the additional story.)
It opens with “Buster,” which is the name of one of the elderly, idiosyncratic Miss Onie Calder’s forty or fifty cats. Miss Onie summons Sheriff Rhodes to her home in a once-
fashionable but now rundown section of the town of Clearview because Buster is dead. She’s certain that her neighbor, Ralph Ramsdell, whose cat has been set upon by one of hers, is the poisoner. When he investigates, Rhodes discovers that something much more sinister is going on.
The Stag BBQ is an annual event in Blacklin County. "It was a chance for the movers and shakers to get together and drink a lot of beer, eat some BBQ and homemade ice cream, tell a few dirty jokes, and do a little gambling....Women weren't allowed. Blacklin County was becoming more conscious of women's rights by the day, but Blacklin County was, after all, in Texas, where a great many men still believed that some activities just weren't appropriate for women." It's probably just as well, in this case, because even some of the men get sick when they discover the body of Gabe Tolliver, who has apparently been "Gored." Sheriff Rhodes doubts the killer was one of George Newberry's Brahma bulls and must figure out which of the many attendees wanted Tolliver dead.
A recipe for homemade peach ice cream, Rhodes's favorite, is appended to the story.
Reverend Alf Anderson helps to restore a community when he turns the stone building atop Obert's Hill into a nondenominational church and attracts a congregation of more than three hundred people. One church member, Ron Eller, does nothing to endear himself to his fellow congregants when he leases his land to Calame's Crusher, Inc., a gravel company that is mining the limestone on it. Between the the noise and dust from the rock crusher, and especially the explosions, Obert residents are sorely unhappy campers: "They claimed that they [the explosions] were destroying property values, which were already low, and driving the livestock crazy. They were driving the citizens crazy, too...." Dan Rhodes has to determine who among them crucified Eller in "The Man on the Cross."
Arrested for armed robbery, Charles Lathrop is a serious rival of Adrian Monk's when it comes to obsessive cleanliness. He even cleans his jail cell, doing a better job of it than Lawton, the jailer, does. The ditched gun Deputy Ruth Grady finds is probably the weapon Lathrop used to hold up convenience stores and a Texaco station, though he denies ever having had one, and it's been thoroughly cleaned. But, as Sheriff Rhodes senses, it's his obsession that will prove his undoing in "Under the Gun," a story lighter in tone than those that precede it, and whose solution reminds me of one of the greatest inverted detective stories I've ever read: Cornell Woolrich's "One Drop of Blood." (I daren't explain why lest I spoil both of them.)
Co-authored by Bill's wife Judy Crider, "Chocolate Moose" concerns the strange death of Mack McAnally at the Round-Up Restaurant. It appears to be a bizarre accident, but when Sheriff Rhodes gives the scene a careful examination, he realizes he has a murder to deal with—the murder of a man who might well have been the most hated person in Blacklin County. "McAnally was, or had been until only a short while earlier, a bully...He spent his time working in his yard and harassing any animal that happened to stray onto his property. He had a pellet gun that he used to shoot at dogs and cats and, rumor had it, even the occasional human. When he was driving, he would sometimes swerve out of his lane in an attempt to run over a squirrel or family pet." The list of his hectoring transgressions is a good deal longer, and many a county resident undoubtedly has a reason for wanting him dead. It's up to Rhodes to figure out who that person is.
A recipe for the "World's Best Chicken-Fried Steak" is appended to the story.
The last and longest story in the collection, "Who Killed Cock Rogers?" begins with manure and ends with murder. Janelle Tabor complains to Sheriff Rhodes when she's splattered with cow manure from one of Ralph Claymore's cattle trucks. The trucks make their way through Clearview's main street every week on their way to the auction sale, and have caused problems for other residents as well as for some of the merchants. There is nothing Rhodes can really do because the law is on Claymore's side. Thus Mrs. Tabor decides to talk to Red Rogers about the matter. "Rogers, whose real name was Larry Redden, was the closest thing Clearview had to a local radio personality. He did just about everything at KVUE...." One of those things was to host a daily talk show that "dealt with both national and local issues." He thrives on controversy. When he invites Mrs. Tabor and two other locals to present their sides of the argument to Ralph Claymore and one of his truck drivers on the air, chaos erupts and Rhodes has to hurry to the station to break up a physical altercation. Two weeks later, Rogers is found shot to death at one of Ralph Claymore's feed lots, and Rhodes has a mystery to solve that doesn't lack suspects.
As evidenced by the passages quoted above, Bill Crider's style is lean and straightforward. It's also leavened with some wonderfully dry humor. Because of the brevity of every story but the last in this collection, characterization is very sketchy. But these are not the kinds of tales in which characterization takes precedence. They're good old-fashioned short detective stories in which half the fun is trying to figure out from the clues given who the culprit is—with the exception of "Under the Gun," in which readers can try to figure out where the known culprit slips up and so give Rhodes the evidence he needs to turn the thief over for prosecution.
The Blacklin County Files, which I can and do enthusiastically recommend, has me looking forward to reading the Dan Rhodes novel-length mysteries in which, based on my reading of the aforementioned "Cranked," I'm sure there's greater character development.
Barry Ergang © 2013
Also awarded a Derringer, this for the best flash fiction story of 2006, Barry Ergang's work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. You can find some of it reprinted in Kindle editions and at Smashwords. He has books for sale from the collection he's accumulated over many years at http://tinyurl.com/ndlbpc7 Please have a look. Barry contributes 20% of the price of books to our fund.
Long familiar to readers via the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series novels Texas author Bill Crider has assembled a short collection of previously published stories featuring the good sheriff Dan Rhodes. The Blacklin County Files: 5 Sheriff Dan Rhodes Stories read just like the good novels in that the stories feature humor, mystery, and the extensive cast of folks that populate the town of Clearview and the surrounding East Texas County of Blacklin.
The small collection opens with the story titled “Buster.” Miss Onie Calder is quite elderly and someone has killed one of her many cats. She blames an angry neighbor and wants him arrested for murder. Things aren’t that simple but the truth will come out.
Sheriff Rhodes knows things happen in the county that might be technically against the law. But, Rhodes is not a hard-nosed law and order guy and is willing to look the other way on certain things as long as nothing happens. In “Gored” Sheriff Rhodes has to break his long standing policy of ignoring the Blacklin County Stagg BBQ. The quiet annual event deep in the woods as a remote cabin usually has no problems and nothing much happens but this year the addition of a dead man means Rhodes has to investigate. By the end of the story if you were not already hungry for barbecue and all the fixings Bill Crider helpfully includes a recipe for homemade Peach Ice Cream.
Ron Eller never did look like Jesus did in all the pictures Sheriff Rhodes saw as a kid in Sunday school classrooms. The fact that he did not look like Jesus at all didn’t stop somebody from killing him and wiring him to a cross. In “The Man on the Cross” Sheriff Rhodes has to figure who killed Ron Eller and why in a story that starts the Monday morning after Easter. The suspects are many in this complex tale of faith, profit, and deceit.
If you live in Blacklin County and you want real good food--meat and potatoes kind of food that will stick to your ribs-- you go to the “Round Up Restaurant.” The sign outside the door makes it clear that they don’t serve chicken¸ fish or anything vegetarian. In “Chocolate Moose” authored by Bill and Judy Crider, Sheriff Dan Rhodes has to go to the restaurant to investigate a death. Pretty much everyone in the county hated Mack McAnally and for various good reasons. Now he is dead in a very strange way in one of the dining rooms. It could be an accident or something more. A good story that finishes up with the killer caught and a recipe for the “World’s Best Chicken Fried Steak” and includes the recipe for gravy. Life doesn’t get much better than that.
Environmental issues are often a theme in the series---especially in recent books. An environmental problem and controversy are present in the “Who Killed Cock Rogers?” Shipping live cattle can often be a messy operation with unintended consequences and controversy. But, nobody expected a murder because of it.
So, get yourself some glass bottled Dr. Pepper (plastic bottles and cans just aren't the same), some peanut butter and cheese crackers, and kick back for a spell with the Blacklin County Files. Five good short stories featuring Sheriff Dan Rhodes, his wife Ivy, Deputy Rudy Grady, Jail Dispatcher Hack Jensen and numerous other good and no so good local residents. Plenty of humor¸ twists and turns in the cases, and detail regarding the residents makes The Blacklin County Files: 5 Sheriff Dan Rhodes Stories yet another fun comfortable cozy style read from award winning author Bill Crider. Solidly good, just like his novels, author Bill Crider provides yet more good reading.
The Blacklin County Files: 5 Sheriff Dan Rhodes Stories
Material supplied by the author in exchange for my objective review.
Kevin R. Tipple © 2012, 2013