"She's Not There"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 16, 2003)
FBI agent Poppy Rice is starting day three of her mid-July vacation on Block Island, located off the Rhode Island coast. Mind you, Poppy was more or less forced to take this time off, but after two days of fishing, kayaking, biking, hiking, bodysurfing and swimming, she's looking forward to seeing what Joe has in mind for this day. If you read the first novel, you know that Joe Barnow is a chief field advisor for the ATF and that although Poppy likes him, it's not like she wants to committed relationship. On this third morning, Joe has flown his Cessna to the mainland to do a quick errand for a local musician, so Poppy's taking advantage of the free time to ride her bike over to a local woman's house to buy some souvenir art work.
That's when, of all things, she finds a corpse not too far off the side of the road. The dead body is an overweight teenage girl, "all twisted up, like a corkscrew," her remaining clothes in shreds and her mouth wide open as if she died screaming. You might expect a top-notch FBI agent to be hardened against such finds, but this is really the first time Poppy has come across a dead body, outside of a morgue or a scene where she knew what she'd be seeing. From the circling seagulls and the fact that Joe didn't come across the body on the way to the airstrip, she quickly deduces that the girl's been dead for little over an hour and that she died elsewhere and was dumped here.
Having had this notion of a vacation drummed into her head, Poppy tries to behave like a normal citizen. She runs to the nearby B & B (which is more of a flophouse and is situated across from the transfer station) and asks Aggy to call the State Police. But Aggy knows that their only state cop is hung over and calls the elderly Constable, Tommy, instead. Aggy manages to get her message through to Jake, an autistic man and Tommy's ward, and onto the Constable who arrives soon after and in his inexperience (he's more of a meter maid than a cop), quickly contaminates the crime scene. Deciding to guard the body, he sends Poppy off to go find the State Police trooper, Officer Fitzgerald. "Fitzy" in turn asks Poppy to locate Doc Brisbane. She later finds out from Joe that Doc Brisbane is suspected of having a slight problem with a Demerol addiction, "Joe's paradise, it turned out, was protected by a chronic alcoholic, the people in paradise were attended by a lotus-eater, and it had an inn that looked out over the dump."
The initial assumption is that the girl died from a drug overdose. It's clear from her weight that she must be one of the girls staying up at the "fat farm," a camp for overweight teenage girls that opened the previous year. Poppy naturally is hoping that Fitzy asks for her help, but until he does, she is stealing herself from getting involved in the investigation. Joe decides they should cut the vacation short and Poppy can and should offer official help from back at the lab in Washington. But, the next morning, as they are preparing to leave, Fitzy happens by to see if maybe Joe and Poppy can go back to the Inn and talk to some of the guests. Joe declines. Poppy jumps at the chance to get involved in the field work. Need I mention that she ends up staying and working closely on the case with Fitzy, which proves essential when a second girl turns up dead?
There is a lot that I like about this novel. The motive and methodology of the crime is definitely unique, not something you can guess ahead of Poppy and technically interesting. In fact, as the technical aspect of it has to do with noise, I was keenly aware of any loud noises around me (i.e. motorcycles pulling up to our car while I had the window down). As Joe is treated like one of their own byt all the natives, it gives Poppy a chance to do things like have breakfast with the locals at a place called Richard's Patio. It's here that they hash over the happenings and we get to know each of them a little better. Perhaps, a little idealized, the author does create a highly desirable atmosphere, certainly the kind of place I'd want to be. And I like that Fitzy is not a one-dimensional drunk, he's actually quite competent at his job and this is clear from his first involvement with the investigation. He's the kind of character that could easily stay with the series, say if Poppy uses her influence and gets him a job with the FBI.
Though the subject matter isn't as meaty as in her previous novel, Tirone Smith does offer up food for thought on two different fronts. One is the negative image that overweight teenage girls present in our society. As victims, the girls attending the "fat camp" are a key part of this novel. Naturally, the girls seem to be eating and eating --- and eating. (Don't be dieting when reading this; then again, I did lose my appetite the more the girls ate.) But, as Poppy gets to them know them better, the descriptions and the personality of the girls go beyond their body weight. Not that it's stated outright, but you can see how these girls are just as addicted to their favorite foods as the next guy is to his cigarettes or alcohol.
The other is social stratification, especially in a place that needs its underclass. Tirone Smith does a very good job of weaving the plot around this tight-knit community; those that have always lived on Block Island, that is, the ones that can map their genealogy back to the original shipwrecked residents, not the ones that descended from the origial landowners. In as is proving to be her knack, expect the unexpected.
Poppy, once again, offers up the same running commentary on the local people and customs. In this way the author skillfully colors the island with eccentric locals and moves the novel along at a fair clip. Poppy is funny, although I didn't find her comments as funny as before. Possibly because Texans offer a whole lot more to laugh about? Or maybe it's because I'm from New England. Or possibly I'm a little closer to this "local/rich landowner/ tourist" milieu having lived in the Florida Keys with its fair share of eccentrics (rich and poor). But this doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the novel. I did. It's just with the last novel, had a lot of "good ones" about Texans and this one seemed more like an insider cracking jokes, but trying to make them seem outside herself. Still fun, though.
Some might quibble over the fact that the author's version of Block Island doesn't completely mesh with reality. Perhaps it would have been better to locate the novel on a fictitious island, but then again, I don't see how it matters. Is there anything real about Poppy Rice's job? So, before the criminally minded get the impression that Block Island would be great place to go -- be aware that they do have more than one aging constable and a seasonal drunk state trooper keeping watch over the place -- in fact, I've heard that the place boasts a police department complete with a chief of police. But don't let the facts get in the way of enjoying this novel, it's a good mystery with a good protagonist who, talk about fiction, has a really good job.
Note: If the song referred to in the book title is peripherally teasing you, here are the words to She's Not There.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
"Love Her Madly"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 26, 2002)
"And I wondered about the comfort that lies in faith. I wondered how comfort could possibly override consideration of truth."
Every now and then a book really surprises me. Since I wasn't keen on the book title nor the cover, I hesitated before reading this one, but because the advanced reading copy was next in the TBR pile, I decided to see what it was about. The first thing that I have to say about this novel is don't prejudge this book. Inside you'll meet one funny, if not brash, FBI agent who has a very serious thing about making sure no one is the victim of injustice.
In this new series we meet FBI agent Poppy Rice. When she came on as the new crime lab director she fired all the "lazy louts with their patronage jobs" and hired in new officers, investigators and chemists. When she finally had the lab reorganized she realized that she didn't want just an office job; she wanted to be out investigating. Given that her boss was so pleased with her work-- "Poppy, you turned a sinking trawler -- infested with a lot of rats, I might add -- into one sleek nuclear-powered yacht" --she was basically able to write her own job description. As such she assigned herself the position of "pseudo-District Attorney" with the purpose of reinvestigating some of the cases that may have been mishandled by the previous administration.
So when she's watching Dan Rather interview convicted ax-murderer Rona Leigh Glueck, the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War, she notices Rona Leigh's small, delicate wrists and wonders how she ever managed to repeatedly swing an ax. When she retrieves the file she sees a possible error, which may have affected the outcome of the trial. As such she requests to go to Texas to interview Rona Leigh Glueck. How long will she be gone, her boss asks. Ten days. That's all Rona Leigh Glueck has until her execution.
When she gets to Texas, she quickly discovers what she's up against. There is a reason that Texas has the highest execution rate; the entire system is ingrained in the citizens as well as the politicians. Even Rona Leigh Glueck is the first to acknowledge that she deserves the death penalty and is not asking the governor for a stay of execution even though she's a changed woman now that she has found Jesus, ridding her "DNA" of Satan. Indeed, she is a far cry from the tough mouthed teenager who bragged about the "pop" she got swinging the ax. Now she's demure and, well, ladylike. She knows, she's got a better chance of stay because the governor might not want to kill a "lady" than because she's found Jesus. No matter how Poppy tries to impress on her that she can only help if there was a legitimate oversight in the court proceedings, Rona Leigh isn't biting. Rona Leigh's view is that if they made a mistake "Well, then they'd kill me all the faster. Matter of pride."
Poppy Rice doesn't make any headway with Rona Leigh's husband either; Rona Leigh is married to the prison's chaplain. He's so impressed with the work Jesus has done with Rona Leigh, he's not at all able to think about the possibility that maybe she was innocent in the first place.While Rona Leigh has a huge group of followers rallying in support of a stay of execution (mostly "dogooders" and "outsiders"), within Texas there are a whole bunch, most in the political and legal system, who feel that if the system convicted her, then she must be guilty. And the fact that the bible advocates "an eye for an eye" well then, it's clear that the death penalty is the right punishment. They can't understand why Poppy's trying anyway. Even if she does find something, in the state of Texas no appeals are heard after 30 days from close of trial. The parole board has the jurisdiction to order a stay, but there's no future in that for its members are appointed by the governor. And the governor's not going soft just because it's a woman this time. The interesting thing is the quote at the top of this page, refers to what Poppy thinks after the prison warden begs off giving a personal view on Rona Leigh's guilt, by saying he "respects the justice system of the great state of Texas." Not that the quote doesn't sum up many sides of this debate.The more Poppy Rice investigates, the more she's convinced that despite Rona Leigh's confession, that there's something not right about this trial. Nonetheless, the execution day arrives and that's when the whole plot gets completely twisted up. Enough said; you have to read this. It's brilliant. The end of the novel convinced me that the title was absolutely on target if the author meant to quote from the The Doors song of the same title (which is now stuck in my head!).
In Love Her Madly, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith evenhandedly covers the emotional pros and cons of the death penalty against the quirks of the Texas legal system. In the interview she says that she believes that a genre novel can successfully have substance and she's proven to be up to the task. Besides the death penalty, there are subtle other attitudes that she expresses. For example, Poppy's assistant leaves work every day at exactly at 5:01 to pick up her kids; Poppy, although no child lover herself, totally accepts that this woman has a life outside her job AND is competent while she is at work.
But don't think for a second that because there might be a conscience to this story that it drags along. It's written with fast dialogue, a lot of humor, good strong characters and a very original plot. I'd say it's a real page-turner, but I found myself going backwards at times because I had to read "a good one" out loud. Poppy Rice is a sharp and witty narrator; and, her observations of Texans are just plain irreverent. (Though deep down I think she's a wannabe Texan - she keeps buying their clothing.) "Texans have such a sense of humor. As opposed to couth." Well that might just explain Poppy Rice as well.
- Amazon readers rating: from 14 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Love Her Madly at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Book of Phoebe (1985)
- Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman (1987)
- The Port of Missing Men (1989)
- Master of Illusion (1994)
- An American Killing (1998)
Poppy Rice Series:
Red Sox Mystery:
- Dirty Water (October 2008) (witten with Jere Smith)
- Girls of Tender Age (January 2006)
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- Read a brief interview with Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
- BookPage review of An American Killing
- WeeklyWire review of An American Killing
- The New York Times review of An American Killing
- ReligiousTolerance.org history of the death penalty.
- National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
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