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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Skirt Man’ Continues the Saga of the Bly-Nightingale Family Begun in Arson Procedural ‘Tabula Rasa’

Posted by kinchendavid on July 16, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Skirt Man’ Continues the Saga of the Bly-Nightingale Family Begun in Arson Procedural ‘Tabula Rasa’

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen

Hinton, WV – They’re back and everyone who enjoys a good story – and three-dimensional characters that a reader cares about – should be grateful. I’m talking about Annie and Sebastian Bly, their daughter Meredith Bly and Annie’s brother Billy Nightingale – featured in last summer’s “Tabula Rasa” by Shelly Reuben (see my complete review from the HNN archives, reprinted below).

This time they have plenty of company in Reuben’s ongoing saga of the family in “The Skirt Man” (Harcourt, $24.00, 256 pages).

On the same night 19-year-old Meredith (Merry) Bly is giving a ballet recital at the Killdeer Town Hall in Upstate New York, an eccentric farmer named Morgan Mason dies a horrible death in a fire in his farmhouse. New York State Police Investigator Sebastian Bly enlists his brother-in-law, New York City supervising fire marshal Billy Nightingale, in his probe of the mysterious death of the man known to one and all as “The Skirt Man” for his habit of wearing long skirts everywhere he goes, including his tractor rides to Killdeer for shopping. He’s also a candidate for mayor.

In her creation of eccentric rural characters, Shelly Reuben is the equal of the grand dame of rural mysteries, Lilian Jackson Braun of the “Cat Who…” mysteries featuring newspaperman/philanthropist Jim Qwilleran and his Siamese cats Koko and Yum-Yum. That’s high praise indeed, because I enjoy Braun’s best-selling novels.

Annie Bly is a dog person, with a basset hound named Murdock, a city dog who remains very skeptical of the joys of country living in that part of Appalachia, Chenango County, where Killdeer is situated. She also has a boss, editor/publisher Slim Cornfield, who’s undergoing a midlife crisis to the extent that he’s taken a leave of absence – Annie thinks it’s a leave of his senses – and turned over to her the task of editing the weekly newspaper, the County Courier and Gazette, where she’s a reporter.

Did Morgan Mason — “The Skirt Man” — die an accidental death? Or was it murder to obtain his valuable acreage? Or was it spontaneous human combustion as fellow mayoral candidate and television personality Creedmore Snowdon suggests in his television show “Heaven and Earth.”

Snowdon was the first on the scene of the fire and is a possible suspect, along with just about everybody in town. He’s a friend of Mason’s older sister, Decidia Skirball – the “Widow Screwball,” as Annie calls her – a woman who was not happy with the division of property willed by her parents to Decidia and Morgan on their death.

This plot point – arguments and litigation about real estate – is often a big deal in rural communities, including the Appalachian County where I live, Summers County, WV, so the author makes an excellent point about motives for murder and mayhem.

Taxes and their assessments are also a major source of friction in rural America, so Rose Gimbel, the four-county bookmobile librarian and tax assessor, could have played a role in the mysteries of Chenango County – an actual NY county north of Binghamton. When Slim Cornfield, lifelong bachelor, meets Rose, an attractive bachelorette, sparks fly like those from a grinding wheel sharpening an ax.

Much to Merry’s amusement, two 17-year-old siblings worship and adore the two-years-older ballerina. Sonny and Moses (Moe) Dillenbeck, the Ivory and Ebony brothers, are products of a blended family and both want to marry Merry – or as the two sometimes say, Sonny wants Moe to marry her and Moe wants Sonny to do likewise.

As I said, the eccentric, funny characters keep coming in novels by Shelly Reuben. This is in sharp contrast to many other crime writers, whose characters often seem so stereotyped and one-dimensional. I of course make exceptions for Braun, Michael Connelly, Robert Parker, Elmore Leonard and a few other writers.

Sonny and Moe are the two who discover that Morgan Mason’s dog Buddy was bludgeoned to death the night “The Skirt Man” died in his chair, where most of the fire was confined. They also discover a jar that may or may not provide a clue to this death.

Who else would benefit from the death of Morgan Mason? How about Decidia’s son Andrew, a 41-year-old former school principal and his young, very pregnant wife Neverly? They’ve eyed Mason’s property, especially the lake on it, ever since Decidia sold them 75 acres of her land so they could open a summer camp. And, as Sebastian points out to questioning Annie, every summer camp needs a lake.

But Wait: There’s More: Another possible suspect is Domingo Nogales Ramirez, a transplant from New York City who owns the innocently named Hobby Hills Horse Farm next door to the Skirt Man’s farm. The 212-acre site had morphed from an equestrian center to a campground, complete with a fish-stocked lake, into a rock concert site. The latest incarnation of Hobby Hills has just about everyone in the area complaining about this permanent Woodstock in the idyllic countryside of Killdeer. (Actually, trivia fans, the August 1969 Woodstock concert was held in Bethel, NY, on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Sullivan County, 40 miles from Woodstock). The Skirt Man and Ramirez weren’t the best of friends, but could their disagreements about stoned concertgoers passing out on the Skirt Man’s property and drug transactions have led to murder?

There are plenty of motives for murder in “The Skirt Man,” Shelly Reuben’s sixth novel, so I won’t belabor the point. If you’re looking for a perfect book to take along on vacation, this is it. As an added bonus, you’ll learn a great deal about arson and how it is investigated.

Publisher’s web site: http://www.HarcourtBooks.com

Author’s web site: www.shellyreuben.com

* * *

If you want to catch up with Shelly Reuben’s outstanding fiction, based on more than 20 years of her experience as a private investigator and licensed arson investigator, get a copy of “Tabula Rasa” (Harcourt, 304 pages, 2005, $24) a psychological thriller/police/arson procedural that tries to answer the question “can good come from pure evil.” Reuben is the gold standard of arson procedurals, but “Tabula Rasa” – Latin for “blank slate” – goes beyond the mechanics of investigating a killer fire to trace the progress of a baby who survives a mysterious fire similar to previous seemingly “accidental” fires that took the lives of the baby’s older siblings – when she’s adopted by a loving couple. It’s the ultimate “nature” vs. “nurture” story.

Can anything good come to an infant girl found physically unharmed under the porch of a still-smoldering house that was destroyed by a mysterious fire? Read Shelly Reuben’s “Tabula Rasa” to find out the fate of Meredith Bly, adopted and raised to be a talented young ballerina by police officer Sebastian Bly and his free-spirited wife Annie.

Even Merry’s birth mother, Edith Tuttle, after giving birth to many children – most of whom are dead – recognizes that the child is different. Billy Nightingale, Annie’s brother and Sebastian’s brother-in-law, is the fire investigator who helps uncover the tangled web of Edith Tuttle, her clueless husband Wilbur and the horror that comes to light. This is a difficult novel to review, because to describe the plot is to give it away. You’ll have to take my word as a professional reviewer – trust me – you’ll never forget “Tabula Rasa.”


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