(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 16, 2002)
"Kate Barnett was a very special person."
Twenty-seven year old Alex Bernier is a reporter for The Monitor in the eccentric town of Gabriel located in the heart of New York State. It's the home of Benson University, so it's more transient and probably more interesting than many small towns. Bernier's beat is normally city government, but since The Monitor lost their police reporter, she's temporarily filling in for part of the trial coverage. Shelly Freeman is on trial for poisoning her husband Lane Freeman. Both were employees at Benson University and were notorious for their hateful marriage. Although there are more murders than one might expect in Gabriel, most don't make it to trial, so this has been headline news for the past month.
Just as the trial ends, Cal Ochoa is hired as the new cops reporter. Ochoa seems to fit in well; that is, he's "fundamentally as insane as the rest" and proving to be an enthusiastic patron of the Citizen Kane, the local bar. And her relationship with Officer Brian Cody is now approaching one year and still going hot and strong, except for her underlying fear that he's going to return to Boston. Alex is concerned for her "beer-swilling" best buddy Jake Madison who does the science beat. Although he seems to be doing his normal activities, running seven miles a day, going to the gym and drinking more than most and still surviving, he's "unplugged" in a strange way. For example he's not getting too excited about anything including the big weeklong conference on agricultural biotechnology being held up at Benson. Alex believes this has to do with his last girlfriend moving back to London, but since Mad's not talking, it's a guess. Madison deals with grief by increasing his normal doses of alcohol and caffeine, which also makes him a little less reliable around the newspaper.
Anyhow, the trial ends, Shelley is found guilty and this should be the end of it. But she sends a letter to The Monitor explaining that she couldn't kill her husband because she loved him, really. No matter the motive for the letter, their editor agrees to send Bernier and Ochoa up for an interview. But interviewing prisoners requires waiting on the red tape so this doesn't happen right away.
In the meantime, besides her regular beat, Alex is sent with Madison to cover the agricultural biotechnology conference. She doesn't do the hard-core science that's presented on the inside; that's Mad's job. She covers the activities on the outside, that is, the dozen or so protesters. This is a college town and protests are fairly routine events, so it isn't exactly a hot news story for Gabriel. However, her interview with one Tobias Kahan the "grand pooh-bah" of the "Don't Break the Food Chain" group gives her (and us) so much information on the downside of genetically modified "Frankenfoods" while hinting at the big events planned for the week, that her article is longer than the one Mad writes on the main conference. Thus Alex's story ends up being placed front page, above the fold shunting Mad's off to an inside story. So when Mad mysteriously doesn't show up for work, she gets assigned his job of covering the keynote speaker for that day's conference.
The speaker is Kate Barnett, a professor of plant science at Benson and world expert on rice breeding. Of course, Alex is griping about having to cover this right up to the start of the presentation. But "then Kate Barnett started talking, and she was so damn eloquent I just forgot my own name." Alex is wowed by this woman who gives a selfless save-the-world presentation about how genetically modified foods can feed millions of more people. That it is like nuclear energy, a tool that can be used to help or to kill and although it requires vigilance, it shouldn't be ignored. Alex is impressed by more than the charismatic nature of the woman; she's awed with the woman's commitment and intelligence. Besides, she doesn't "raise her voice or bug her eyes out or rain spit on me. She just sounded like... well, like she meant what she said, and since she knew she was right there was no point in getting all huffy about it."
As can be expected, the campus becomes a hotbed of debate over the controversial "Frankenfoods." Kate Barnett's lab is bombed, and an innocent bystander is killed. Then Kate herself is murdered. Normally Alex can rely on her boyfriend, Officer Cody, to provide a little inside information about the investigation, but the F.B.I are in town and have asked him not to fraternize with the press. When Mad finally gets out of the hospital from a drug overdose he insists he didn't do, Bernier is figuring that there's way too much happening here and that just maybe it's all tied together. Perhaps even Lane Freeman's death isn't what it appears to be and that Cody might have made a wrong arrest. Her gut instinct says to find out more about Kate Barnett. But all anyone that has worked with her will say is "Kate Barnett was a very special person." To actually solve the mystery, Alex finally decides she better pull together the newsroom because it is going to take all of them working together.
This is my favorite type of sleuth novel - smart, witty and one that really delves into all sides of a controversial issue - making the issue such a part of the plot that you don't know which side to take or who's responsible for the murders - well that is, until the end. And our narrator, Alex Bernier, is really humorous when she's not outright irreverent. I love the way she juxtaposes the opposing sides, showing the humor in fanatics. During the weekend, the "Don't Break the Food Chain" people have set up an information table and are dressed as fruits and vegetables. As a counterpoint, Kate Barnett's group has a table to provide their side of the story. And since Alex has pulled weekend duty, she's interviewing each group, first the D.B.F.C., and then Kate Barnett. While talking to her things get a little rough. "There we were, sitting on a bench on the Green talking about starving children and pasteurization and genetic engineering, and the next thing I know we're surrounded by the Fruit of the Loom guys."
Another thing that I really enjoyed about this novel is the way she captures the atmosphere of working at a newspaper where a reporter can be both friends and compete with her coworkers at the same time. It's very clear that much of the novel's environment is taken directly from Beth Saulnier's own life since she is a reporter in Ithaca, New York, home of Cornwell University. It's like she's created a parallel universe since there are some many things that are the same but different between Gardner and Ithaca. This gives the series a very strong sense of place, not to mention character.
And she's got a real knack for catching the essence of a situation in a fleeting scene. For example, at one point the D.B.F.C decide to set up a protest in the Eggplant, a restaurant around since the seventies noted for its organic dishes. They are protesting because someone heard that they were serving non-organic arugula. Alex points out that "the irony, of course, was that the members of the Eggplant Collective are about as crunchy as you can get, sandals and pieced noses being the de facto waiters' uniform. The Chain people weren't preaching to the choir; in other words, they were shanghiing the entire church. Truly, the restaurant staff looked like they didn't know whether to call the cops or drop their aprons and start chanting."
Since I've not read her previous three novels I am in no position to compare this one to those, however, this is so well written, complex and tight that I wouldn't be surprised if people say this is her best work yet. Even if this is on par, this novel is strong enough to stand on its own and can be read out of sequence from the series without a problem. However, be aware once you read one, you'll want to read the others, this is a superb investigative novel in what I assume to be a very strong series.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Alex Bernier Series:
- Reliable Sources (1999)
- Distemper (2000)
- The Fourth Wall (February 2001)
- Bad Seed (February 2002)
- Ecstasy (April 2003)
Writing as Elizabeth Bloom:
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- Official Web Site for Beth Saulnier
- Genetically Modified Food UK and World News
- New Scientist.com Special Report on Geneticially Modified Foods
- DeadlyPleasures review of The Fourth Wall
- BookCrossing.com review of Bad Seed
- Curled Up with a Good Book review of Bad Seed
- Chapter excerpt from See Isabelle Run
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About the Author:
Beth Saulnier was born in North Adams, MA, went to high school (Middlesex School) in Concord, MA, and graduated from Vassar College in 1990 with a BA in French and Spanish. At Vassar, she was editor-in-chief of the student paper. She spent exactly three weeks in graduate school at Cornell University (in Communications) before fleeing back to journalism; she's spent a total of five years as a newspaper reporter and editor in Massachusetts and New York.
Since 1992, she's been the film critic for The Ithaca Journal, writing an AP-award-winning column called "Saulnier on Cinema." In the past she has also co-hosted a movie-review show, TAKE TWO, on Ithaca's Channel 13 and was associate editor of the Cornell University alumni magazine. She is also a member of the board of the directors of the Tompkins County (NY) SPCA, the mother of two dogs and two cats (all shelter animals), and an ardent vegetarian who's proud to live in what The Utne Reader called "the most enlightened city in the USA."
She lives in New York City.