"Scary Stuff" by Sharon Fiffer
Minotaur, 292 pp., $24.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James
Someone who picks through yard sales and estate sales, through the evidence of other people's flotsam and jestam, would naturally stumble upon more than a few secrets in the bargain.
On that premise, author Sharon Fiffer has constructed a naturalistic, if you will, mystery series around protagonist Jane Wheel, a former Chicago advertising executive who has succumbed to her true passion: picking.
And crime solving: via those secrets she unearths, along with the "personal treasures" she seeks for clients and her best pal, Tim Lowry, who owns a resale business.
This sixth Jane Wheel mystery serves up a real familly affair. Jane-- whose professor husband and teenage son are off in South America on an archeological dig-- returns to her hometown of Kankakee, Illinois, where her father, Don, and mother, Nellie, have been running a roadhouse business since Jane's youth, although the food service has been eclipsed by the offerings at the bar.
Jane is tracking down a lead on an Internet collectibles-auction scam that she secretly fears involves her brother Michael, whom she has just visited in Palm Springs, California, as the novel opens. After pressing a duped auction-merchandise recipient for information, Jane follows a trail to Herscher, Illinois, a town close by Kankakee.
Autumn is literally falling upon the Midwest, with Halloween drawing nigh, and Jane's investigation-- encouraged by her mentor, former police detective Bruce Oh, now a P.I. who has taken Jane under his wing (although she skipped the licensing examination because of [what else?] a good sale-- winds up on the creaky porch of a manse that has seen better days, though long celebrated for the annual "Scary Night" celebrations staged by its seemingly eccentric inhabitant.
She, too, has seen better days, believing that the ghost of her deceased brother is still overseeing her affairs, as he did in life. Unsurprisingly, her vast, aged dwelling is filled with enough treasures-- and secrets-- to keep Jane occupied until BlackBerries become collector's items.
She (and Tim) are further immersed in another find: a farmhouse, barn, and sheds packed to the rafters with another old woman's ratpacked trove of tangible memories, she being the mother-in-law of one of Nellie's longtime customers.
That Nellie-- she of the salty tongue and lightning-fast spatula-- steals the show here: a crusty, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is hardscrabbler with an attitude and an opinion about every person and situation. Indeed, Jane has more mother issues than "Good Housekeeping" magazine, yet somehow the two see eye-to-eye enough to get to the heart of Michael's conundrum, which fans out into much more of a family drama than Jane could have possibly imagined at the outset, one that ties together the "Psycho"-esque "Scary Night" manse as well as the creepy, after its own fashion, farmhouse.
There's something inherently Hitchcockian about an isolated dwelling next to a field of spent corn rows, and Fiffer's scenery enhances the dangers of plowing through the accumulations of lifetimes and uncovering the secrets that others wish to remain hidden, at all costs.
Simultaneously, the Halloween backdrop summons inviting, homespun memories of freshly carved jack o' lanterns, caramel-dipped apples, and vintage cutout directions of black cats with their green pupils set into yellow eyes, with their backs arched and tails upright and hair on end, resembling cornstalks.
The old-fashioned elements of this mystery reflect the sensibilities of the protagonist and stir up a nostalgic air, as crisp as an October sunset viewed next to piles of raked maple leaves, earthy scents mingling with that of chimney smoke, or yard-pile burning. Fiffer's protagonist and story will attract anyone whose eyes light up at card tables overflowing with pink and green Depression glass, with Bakelite-handled flatware, with McCoy flowerpots and vases-- all tagged not in dollars, but cents.
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