Reviewed by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965-67)
Don Strachey, PI, is back, and so is his sharp-witted husband and sounding board, Timmy, “a rational man,” says Don. Damned adorable too, says my own thought patterns based on Lipez’s ability to bring forth a sharp picture of the character on the printed page. Aren’t writers brilliant in that we can create a person out of thin air, and a reader can see him/her/it based on little black marks on a white page? Some writers are better at this than others, Stevenson among the former. (If you haven’t read the first fifteen Strachey’s, Timmy was once a Peace Corps Volunteer, and his resulting unique window on the world helps our PI solve crimes, not unlike Holmes’ Watson or Morse’s Lewis.
Killer Reunion is a subgenre of mystery writing called a “closed circle mystery,” wherein the story begins, proceeds and concludes at a country home (mini-castle) in the English countryside. The place is full of guests, and when one of them turns up drowned in the bathtub or garroted in the library, all guests, as well as the frantic host become suspects. Often, a sleuth is coincidentally one of the guests, as is Strachey, attending Timmy’s family reunion, not in a country home, but a country inn. That would be the Tuttleston Inn—the lunch specialty: kale salad—located in the heart of “The Berkshires,” the mountains of Western Massachusetts. If you haven’t been to The Berkshires, go. Climb Mount Greylock. Be assured the hike won’t require you to maneuver through a line of dead hikers ahead of you. Later, get comfortable at Tanglewood and enjoy the Boston Symphony. Do not stay more than three days since the area is home to the author and his actual husband. They don’t want to be overrun by half-crocked tourists who climb the mountain in flip-flops, generating the peace-shattering racket of ambulance sirens and requiring the more serious hikers to help the flip-floppers with broken ankles back down the trail.
Most wonderfully, we get to begin our enjoyment of Killer Reunion with the two pages before Chapter One. I happen to be a reader who loves Tables of Contents, my favorite purveyor of such, Louis de Bernières, whose number of chapters range from over sixty to a hundred. A few chapter titles from Corelli’s Mandolin: “L’Omosessuale,” “Letters to Mandras at the Front,” “Pelagia’s First Patient.” Stevenson has one-upped this talent, replacing a Table of Contents with a list of “trademark and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction.” (Wordmarks? What the fuck?) I laughed so hard at these official trademarks and their juxtaposition to one another I hemorrhaged. Sample from the two-page list: “IBM,” “Ketel One,” “The Washington Post,” “PornHub,” “NPR,” “The President and Fellows of Harvard College,” “JOHN DEWAR & SONS COMPANY.” My favorite: “Subaru Forester/Outback: Fuji Jukogyo Kabuskiki Kaisha TA Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.”
So here are this gang of Callahans, maybe 90% of them imbeciles, not unlike my family and yours. The other 10% are the in-group, Timmy’s cousins and spouses. With the author diving right in, Strachey learns in the first paragraph that one of the Callahans, the elderly Ann Carmichael Callahan, can’t make it as she’s just passed on. Rumor has it that to cheer her up when she’s on her deathbed, her son Stan tells her Trump has been impeached. With that, the clan parts like the Dead Sea—the Trumpers on one side, and the Trump-haters on the other. So half the Callahans aren’t speaking to the other half, or they’re throwing dinner rolls at each other. Somehow, peace for the greater good prevails—after all, children are in attendance, though they’re pretty much off-stage, thank God.
(Note: readers will have trouble keeping one Callahan straight from another, but you’ll soon figure out who matters to the plot and who doesn’t. If, like me, you read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet only to go mad what with the characters having three or four nicknames apiece, most of them starting with L. Ferrante includes a guide telling you who’s related to who, which is not helpful and only serves to make you ask yourself, Why am I reading this shit? She should have given us a list of Italian trademarks instead. Think of the possibilities!)
The Callahans arrive piecemeal with such idiosyncrasies as Uncle Jack’s, who calls Strachey, MacGyver, and Belinda Potts, who has a butt like the President’s. Such details impress the each character in your mind. Timmy and his in-group anxiously await Cousin Carl, a widower whose car is still festooned (fortuitously, as it turns out) with old Bernie stickers. The poor fellow is trying to give up his forty-year Kools habit, a cigarette brand chosen to show his solidarity with African-American smokers. He arrives depressed, touchy and withdrawn. No fun, that.
Three Callahans to pay attention to are Grayson, who is just out of prison—now there’s a suspect!—and someone Strachey refers to as “Ninth Generation Gerald,” who no one has ever seen before or has any memory of, shows up with a cornucopia of Callahan lore spanning nine generations beginning with “…the first Callahan to set foot on American soil, Guy Callahan…who ran a tavern in New Amsterdam from 1630 to 1664…when the British drove the Dutch out of Manhattan… issuing Guy and his ilk licenses to run ale houses. His ilk only; no Irish need apply); and finally, the elderly and charming Leona Callahan, who is managing early dementia with get-up-and-go vigor despite forgetting where she’s going, or where she is for that matter. The thing is, Strachey can see she is clearly someone who knows too much, though at a loss to tell him what it is she knows. Something to do with someone she saw who reminded her of something. Oh. The author has early onset Alzheimer’s down pat. (After my dad, stricken with same, went out of the house in a snowstorm wearing only pajamas, I asked him why he did that. He said, “If I didn’t go out, how would I have gotten back in?” I next asked him to make me a short one. It was tasty despite the coffee grounds settled beneath the bourbon. Alzheimer’s is about lost logic, not lost keys.)
When the initial get-together dinner comes to a close, the Trumpers have already exited in a snit before dessert, but the rest are chatting away looking forward to the next day’s slide show. When I went to a Cam IV reunion not long ago, we all brought slides but no one brought a projector. Our host, a Peace Corps Volunteer extraordinaire, and now the District Attorney for Eastern or Western Tennessee, I forget which, dashed off to his office and announced to his staff, “I need a slide projector right away.” Guess what they all said? “What’s a slide projector?” (Dick—when your publisher prints new editions of Killer Reunion, you can use those lines if you feel like it. Just get me into the trademarks list.)
The next morning, the Callahan in-group, along with Strachey, who is really a sport about all this, meet up for breakfast. Carl is a no-show. They discuss the reasons Carl might be elsewhere, the reasons sound, particularly the opinion that Marla, a local bar-fly, who carries cords around in a bag with the logo of the company where she works, and whose motto is, Use It or Lose It, has diverted Carl.
Enter Chief DiBella of the Tuttleston Police Department. He’s escorted directly to Timmy’s table by the inn’s distraught manager, bringing news that Carl was just found dead in his bed by a maid. The chief describes the…uh…unpleasant condition of the body, naked and tied to the four-poster bed. I won’t give away Chief DiBella’s details, but believe me, they’re way, way out there; or the weapon used, even more way, way out there. You’re buying the book right now, right? If not, get out your cell and order it from Matt at “The Bookstore and Get Lit Wine Bar” in The Berkshires town of Lenox, 413-637-3390. Matt is the one who recommended Louis de Bernières to me.
Spoiler alert: I will tell you the cause of death since it won’t spoil anything, but if you don’t want to know the cause of death was until you read the book, skip to the next paragraph. Chief DiBella: “I believe that the pathologist will find that Mr. Callahan died from acute nicotine poisoning.” And so, shock and accusations and alibis ensue, but the best clue for Strachey to solving the mystery of what’s going on here—who, and why, and how— is still Leona Callahan. He is sure he will lead him to the killer though the in-groups is skeptical. She says to him, eyes bright with the revelation getting through to her, that the person she saw was some…some name like… “Wicker Dogma!”
I loved this super contemporary closed circle mystery, its structure born a hundred years ago, come October 2020. Agatha has smiled down on Richard Stevenson.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965-67) has published nine novels and a memoir. She lives on a barrier island on the southwest Florida coast and is now writing of a horrific crime. She was a friend to both the victim and his killer. The working title is, A Swift and Fearful Death. Her memoir Girls of Tender Age, centered on a crime, the murder of her childhood friend and classmate when they were fifth-graders.