Nancy Pickard

Marie Lightfoot - True Crime Reporter, Bahia Florida
Jenny Cain - Foundation Director, Port Frederick, Massachusetts


"The Truth Hurts"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark SEP 08, 2002)

Marie Lightfoot is feeling pretty good. Although a successful writer, she is still anonymous enough that she can go to the local grocery store dressed in shorts, sloppy T-shirt and ratty thongs and not be recognized. Then as she's standing in line, she sees a nasty article about herself in one of the tabloid newspapers at the checkout: "Best-Selling Author Hides Her Racist Past." The article is all the more insolent because Marie is a white woman seeing a black man, Florida's state attorney Franklin DeWeese, no less. "I was actually having a pretty nice life until five minutes ago," she tells us.

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As it turns out, there is some truth to the tabloid's statement. Marie Lightfoot was born Marie Folletino. Her parents disappeared from Sebastion, Alabama when she was only a few months old, abandoning her to be raised by her aunt and uncle. Her parents were involved with a secret organization called Hostel, which helped Blacks during the early 1960s when they were striving to achieve equal civil liberties. Hostel members provided transportation and safe houses for prominent Blacks, much as the Underground Railroad did in earlier times. On the evening of June 12, 1963 when they should have been at a party to listen to JFK's radio speech, the Folletino's unexpectedly slipped out of town, leaving the rest of the Hostel members to be arrested and publicly berated for their liberal activities. Worse, the black Hostel members were hunted down and beaten or killed. The Folletino's had mysteriously turned traitor, but then this seems to be a family tradition. Marie's grandparents earned their wealth by handing over the names of their "communist" Hollywood friends during the McCarthy years, enabling them to continue working as screenwriters when those more talented were banned. Like it or not, Marie has had to live with her parents' infamous reputation as double agents for the FBI.

The tabloid article points out the irony that as a true crime author, she willingly uncovers everyone's else true crime past, but her own. And its true that she's only dabbled with her parents past; five years earlier she stayed in Birmingham and made trips up to Sebastion to interview the people that were most involved in her parents' life - the black couple that worked for them and the Fishers who hosted the party the night her parents left town. She also tracked down and interviewed James, the last man to have stayed in the preacher's room, the safe room, at her parents home. The little she has learned amounts to five chapters in a book she's entitled Betrayal.

And then to goad her on, she gets a creepy e-mail from a Paulie Barnes who takes credit for the tip to The Insider. The next day, a package arrives with a copy of John D. MacDonald's The Executioners and an interesting proposal. Paulie Barnes wants Marie to write a book about her own murder. Paulie will guide her chapters and of course, do the killing. But first she is told to fire her assistant, not to involve any law enforcement, accept she can tell Franklin since Paulie believes he'll stay far away from her to protect his own children from harm. If she doesn't do as he says, then he'll start killing those she cares about.

As I was reading this novel, I kept wondering if I was going to end up recommending it. It seemed so obvious as to who Paulie Barnes must be. As I told one of the other reviewers, I was going to be so disappointed if I was right. Well, I wasn't. I forgot how talented Nancy Pickard is at throwing out clues that distract us away from the true culprit, then shocking us early enough on that we realize we were on the wrong trail. But then who? The interesting thing is, Marie stays neutral. Unlike the reader, she doesn't start guessing about things when the private investigator, her cop friends or those she's interacting with drop what seem to be thunderous hints. Nor does Marie outsmart us by knowing the truth before us. Marie basically, at least in this instance, is trying her hardest not to have people she loves harmed, and of course, trying to keep herself alive. So, I'm not disappointed at all with this mystery; and, I didn't have this one figured out any sooner than Marie.

Although this series has a light tone --- in the strictest sense it really is a "cozy" --- the plot does have a social consciousness to it, reminding us about the people who played a part in the 1960's Civil Rights movement as well as the brief reference to another dark moment in our history when the McCarthy trials were taking place. I found the whole plot to be rather clever and original. Moreover, Pickard has created another likable character in Marie Lightfoot.

Successful sleuth series tend to run strong in character, setting and sense of time/place, which this one does. Some sleuth series also introduce another kind of signature; for example Diane Mott Davidson includes the recipes that Goldy Schulz uses for her catering events. In the Marie Lightfoot series, she includes a book within a book; Pickard inserts chapters from the book Marie is writing in between those in which Marie narrates the ongoing events of her life. Naturally the one Marie writes has the expected tone of a true crime piece. Marie's own narration is more immediate, told in first person present tense; she pulls us into whatever she is doing, tells us why she does what she does ("That's a lie, intended only to get her off the porch so that I can fish the damned letter out of the wastebasket."), often sharing the running dialogue she is having with herself ("Right, like I haven't thought about being careful with the children. Do I have moron tattooed on my forehead?").

The other thing that works well in this novel is the use of e-mail as communication. Marie has a laptop and just like in real life, she checks it frequently, being the last thing she does before going to bed. And Pickard does a realistic job of including the e-mail content just as one would include telephone and face-to-face conversations. It is refreshing to have a female sleuth that knows how to use a computer.

So, yes, I enjoyed reading The Truth Hurts as much as I have any novels in the Jenny Cain series. Nancy Pickard is a self-professed Nancy Drew fan and that influence remains in this new series, even though it's structure is unique for the genre.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Truth Hurts at MostlyFiction.com

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"Generous Death"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 07, 1999)

This is the first Jenny Cain mystery in the series. I picked it up late last spring at a church rummage sale. I had only read the one book of hers and I really wanted to read more, this seemed like a great place to start. It's easy to see the success of her series. Jenny Cain is a very likable character, smart, a corny sense of humor, realistic relations with her community and an original occupation, especially for an amateur sleuth. Jenny is the Executive Director of The Foundation, a trust fund that manages and distributes money to needy projects in the imaginary town of Port Frederick, Massachusetts. Part of her job is to deal with the wealthy who promise to leave large chunks of money to the Foundation which in turn invests the principal and then channels the interest to the charity of the donor's choice. And since money begets money, having a lump sum managed by the Foundation is more profitable than all the smaller organizations having separate accounts. Somehow, playing with all this money to benefit those in need seems to justify the natural greediness of money.

The mystery begins when Arnie Culverson, who was going to leave $8 million to The Foundation, dies in what appears to be a suicide. He is found lying in his favorite testered bed in the museum's Chinese room - to the giggle of a group of fourth graders. Surprisingly, he had changed his will only the week before and decided to leave all of his money to his estranged daughter. So while Jenny is dealing with the problems beset by this unexpected turn, another donor dies. Soon it becomes obvious to the inner circle that "Somebody is Killing the Great Philanthropists of Port Frederick." But the motive is not at all clear, nor the murderer.

What I like best about this book is her adept way of keeping the mystery going while educating us in the world of charitable trusts. In this first novel, she meets Geoff whom she marries in a future novel. Although she doesn't hold back in the excitement of meeting her perfect mate, she also doesn't go overboard with embarrassing us the reader either. The book was published in 1984 but really only shows its age once. When she takes the shuttle to New York City, museum director Simon Church sits in the plane's smoking section. Many books that were published in the sixties and seventies have lots of people smoking all the time. Sometimes I forget that in the mid-80s, it was still somewhat acceptable to smoke, at least there were smoking rooms and sections back then. Now there is no mercy.

And as far as the whodunit aspect? Ah- let the reader be guessing up until the very unusual ending...

  • Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
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"But I Wouldn't Want to Die There"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 07, 1999)

I've been meaning to add this book to this list for some time.  Jenny Cain goes to New York City to find out why her friend Carol was brutally murdered.  She ends up living in Carol's apartment (in a building full of aging eccentrics) and taking over her job at the Hart Foundation (lots of complicated problems to sort out).  Carol's family is too ready to blame the murder on Carol's separated husband, Steve, who has asked Jenny to prove his innocence.  There are lots of reason I liked this book - the suspense, her sense of humor, her candidness, but also the strong imagery.  There are a lot of books I read quickly and then forget about but this was not one of them.



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Jenny Cain Mysteries:

Eugenia Potter Mysteries

True-Crime Writer Marie Lightfoot Mysteries:

Standalone Mystery:

Other:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Nancy Pickard earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri (Columbia). She worked as a freelance writer for ten years before trying her hand in at fiction.

Her stories have won or been nominated for Agatha, Anthony, Edgar Allen Poe, Macavity, Shamus and American Mystery awards, and have appeared in many prestigious collections. She is the only author ever to win Anthony, Agatha, Macavity and Shamus awards.

She is past president of Sisters in Crime, an international association of mystery fans, and has served on the board of directors of the Mystery Writers of America.

She is a life-long resident of the Kansas City area and lives in Fairway, Kansas.

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