big-charlene1Big Charlene’s Weight-Loss Supper Club and Taxi Dancing:
A Twisting Creek Mystery
By R J Huddy (Morocco 1981-83)
A Peace Corps Writers Book, $12.95; Kindle $ 2.99
254 pages
2014

Reviewed by Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64)

Here’s a charmer of a sort-of-mystery by a talented yarn-spinner who is a pleasure to spend 254 pages with.  I say “sort of” mystery because in the final chapters Huddy starts pulling characters out of thin air in order to duct-tape his narrative in place, and because one big question—was the Farley-parents botulism poisoning accidental or intentional?—is never really answered.  I don’t know what the plural of deus ex machina is, but Huddy could have used at least one more.

Huddy’s considerable appeal is in his droll, companionable voice and his Preston Sturgess-like cast of small town odd and not-so-oddballs in Twisting Creek, Kentucky.  Accomplished chef Bradley Michaels lands in this remote burg after his Hells Kitchen business partner and ex-lover, Angela Van Landringham, cheats him out of his share of the Le Plat Nourissant profits, and he bolts from New York City in a beat-up (is there any other kind?) pink Dodge Neon with her copper pots and ceramic German knives.

Soon Michaels has hooked up, professionally and otherwise, with Charlene Farley, like Michaels a jolly one-time chub.  “Big Charlene” is now a size that in the rural South borders on svelte.  They run a restaurant that specializes in low-cal gourmet dishes.  The supper club also offers work-out routines and a bevy of “taxi dancers,” pretty Asian college girls that fat men can dance with in order to lose weight.  Bradley and Charlene introduce the notion to rural Kentucky that a full life and peace of mind do not require a steady diet of suet.  One of Huddy’s wittiest plot points is this: a suspect in one of the six crimes committed in the novel is a consortium of the supper club’s resentful competitors that includes Pizza Hut and KFC.

Attention dog lovers: one of Huddy’s most likable characters is Michaels’ collie Jezebel.  She dances, she croons along with blenders, she leaps into action when Michaels finds himself waving a poisonous snake around at a revival service run by Charlene’s “coat-tail preacher” brother Lonnie.  Huddy is as fond of dogs as he is unfond of religious scammers like Lonnie.  Michaels’ own deepest beliefs run to “hard bench science.”  This is an outlook he says he shares with many other chefs.  If a soup needs salt, he says, “you can pray over it…you can wave a crystal pyramid over it, shake voodoo sticks at it, sprinkle fairy dust over it, rattle bones over it and invoke the spirit of Vishnu into it, and it’ll still need salt.”  George Bernard Shaw never said it better.

The novel is written as a long letter to Charlene and Bradley’s unborn child, part of the letter from a jail cell.  He’s arrested when evidence turns up that his old nemeses Van Landringham has shown up at a nearby motel and then gone missing.  It looks like some kind of set-up, and of course it is.  The happy ending is predictable; the surprise here is to find yet another Peace Corps novelist with a voice that’s so rational, so entertainingly good-natured, and so delightful to be around.

Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI series.