Saturday, December 16, 2017

Romanced to Death: A Romantic Way to Die (2001), by Bill Crider

One reason I like reading mysteries is that from them I learn about subjects concerning which I often know, quite frankly, dismayingly little--all the while still getting to enjoy a nice little murder.  This is part of the reason I enjoy Golden Age greats like John Rhode and R. Austin Freeman.  I barely got through chemistry in high school and didn't dare dream of taking physics (it would have been more like a nightmare, actually); yet as an adult I came to hugely enjoy reading these two masters of the so-called "humdrum" mystery ingeniously apply science to deft  criminal devices in their baffling books. 

On the other hand, in college I minored in English and American literature and I don't so much share the fascination many vintage mystery fans have with the game of literary quotations that some GA mystery writers reveled to play. (I'm looking at you Dorothy Sayers and Michael Innes!)  Too much shop, I suppose.

Similarly, I majored in history, in fact received a PhD in American history and briefly taught it, but I'm not so fascinated by consciously "period" mystery either--unless we count as "period" mystery the mysteries written in the 20th century.  (I do have some exceptions too, like John Dickson Carr's brilliantly conceived The Devil in Velvet).

However, I greatly like small-town American  regional mystery, especially when set in New England or New England's historical antagonist, the Deep South.  I grew up in the Deep South myself (indeed, like Bill Crider, my father is from Texas, though a much different part of the state)--though it was the more homogenized suburban South of the Seventies and Eighties, which to a large extent actually resembled the rest of the country.  (Shocker!)

My Mother grew up in a small town (village, really) in the "Dutch" (i.e., Deutsche) region of Pennsylvania, another fascinating region, something to which I alluded in my introduction to the recently reprinted vintage mystery The Hex Murder.  Between 1930 and 2000, the population of my mother's home town grew by all of 39 people, from 637 to 676 (though there was a boom the decade after that, with the pop. going all the way up to 765).

I found that fascinating small-town environment as well in Atoka, Oklahoma, where GA crime writer Todd Downing grew up, and I wrote about this in Clues and Corpses, my book on Downing and his crime fiction reviews.

It's this same quality that I find and enjoy in Bill Crider's Sheriff Dan Rhodes mysteries, set in Clearview, Blacklin County, Texas, somewhere between Dallas and Houston in the southeastern (more traditionally southern) part of the state. 

The Crider books are cozies, I would say, complete with the sheriff's pet animals (there about have to be cats and/or dogs in a modern cozy, I contend); but what is distinct about them is the strong sense of place and the gently wry humor.  Also, I would argue, the books work better as puzzles than many modern cozies.  Bill Crider gives the satisfaction of actually providing the reader with, well, clues.  This is not something you always get from, say, MC Beaton.

One of my favorites in the Dan Rhodes series is 2001's A Romantic Way to Die, this in part because it deals with another foreign subject to me: the world of romance fiction. 

The late Robert Barnard, the son of a romance novel writer (his father, not his mother, his father having written under a pseudonym as I recall), bumped off a romance fiction queen three decades ago in his mystery Death in Purple Prose, but Bill Crider in his book takes out a local aspirant to that exalted status.

pecs front and center: romance cover model Jason Aaron Baca
(see below for more)

This violent death takes place at a writer's conference at another small Blacklin County town, Obert, an even more obscure community than Clearwater--though we learn that, on account of its hill, "the highest point between Houston and Dallas," the little town "had at one time been considered as a possible location for the Texas state capitol.

After losing out to victorious Austin, "Obert had sunk into an extended period of obscurity, its only claim to fame being the small private college, which had been founded shortly after the Civil War and had struggled along under the management of one denomination or another for nearly a hundred years before closing its doors forever in the early 1960s."

Old Main, Trinity University, Tehuacana
the inspiration, I believe, for the main setting of
A Romantic Way to Die (see below for more)

Readers of A Romantic Way to Die learn that a previous Dan Rhodes murder investigation (chronicled a decade earlier in Booked for a Hanging) involved the defunct Obert college--clearly an ill-starred place indeed! 

However, Tom Chatterton, a wealthy antiques dealer from Dallas, bought the college property and restored it to function as a conference center, with the romance fiction writers conference to be "just the first of many that Chatterton hoped to host on his rejuvenated property."  Oh, the best-laid plans! (Ha! A literary reference!)

The big draw at the conference is not organizer Vernell Lindsey, a local woman who has just published a successful romance novel, but the spectacular--or should I say pecstacular--Terry Don Coslin, another local success story.  A popular romance novel cover model with "rock-hard pecs," his great ambition is to become the new Fabio, getting on the cover of every historical romance novel published.

A Romantic Way to Die amusingly opens with Vernell and Terry Don doing a book signing at the mobbed local Wal-Mart.  Naturally Crider as an astute social observer has caught, in his distinctive and deceptively simple narrative voice, the impact, good and bad, that Wal-Marts have had on small towns:

Wal-Mart, Mexia

Sometimes it seemed to Sheriff Dan Rhodes as if the Wal-Mart were, in fact, the only store in town, and that half the population could be found there at any given hour.  Which wasn't too far from the truth, considering that the downtown section of Clearview had virtually disappeared over the course of the last few years.  Well, it hadn't disappeared so much as been abandoned.  And then some of the buildings had started falling down.  Rhodes didn't much like to drive through what was left of the downtown these days.

But as the downtown had crumbled, the area around the Wal-Mart had thrived.  There was a new restaurant called the Round-Up, a new car dealership, a Sears catalog-order and appliance store, a big grocery store, and even a McDonald's.  No wonder the parking lot was crowded.

When back in April I was spending a lot of time in Holly Springs, Mississippi, a lovely old southern town where my father was undergoing rehab, I saw at first hand some of the phenomenon Bill Crider describes in the above passage.  The local Wal-Mart was packed!  All. The. Time. Happily, however, the wonderful downtown area with its fabulous courthouse square still is very much alive and well.

at the romance fiction conference
someone suffers a fatal fall
from a high window
At Obert's romance fiction conference Terry Don--he of the rock hard pecs--is a rooster in a hen house, if you will. Soon claws are out and feathers are flying, much to Thomas Chatterton's mortification! Under the circumstances it's not so shocking when a woman is found dead from a blow to her head. Sheriff Dan has only started investigating this death when another conference participant falls--or is pushed--from one of the old main building's windows. 

Sheriff Dan and his deputy, Ruth Grady, had better get moving on this case quick, before someone else is bumped off at this deadliest of literary dos.  The pair finds that there is rather a lot of dirty laundry to sort though!

I've always assumed that Bill Crider's home town of Mexia, Limestone County, Texas, was the inspiration for Clearwater, but I'm certain that the tiny town of Tehuacana (pop. 283), in the same county, is the inspiration for Obert.  Tehuacana, like Obert, lost out in the battle to become capital of Texas. Afterward the town sank into obscurity, especially after it lost Trinity University, to which it was home between the school's founding in 1869 and its transfer to the town Waxahatchie in 1902.

The splendid old mansard-roofed, Second Empire main building of Trinity University, Tehuacana is still standing today and seems clearly to have been Bill Crider's inspiration for Obert's Old Main. I love a mystery with a strong sense of place, and Bill Crider's books always have that, A Romantic Way to Die being no exception.

The romance novel material is another plus for me.  Bill Crider is amusing in his take on this branch of fiction, without being condescending.  After all, he notes, the people who don't want to write romance novels, all seem to want to write mysteries.  To each her own when its comes to genre fiction, I say!

Jason Aaron Baca in the flesh
(though a rare shirt-on photo)
I learned a bit about the cover boy biz in A Romantic Way to Die.  Romantic fiction is directed almost entirely at straight women (though there is gay romantic fiction as well, much of it written, often mashed up with mystery, by the awesomely prolific Josh Lanyon, a contributor to the book Murder in the Closet); and in catching buyers' eyes the male cover model thereupon is much more important than the female cover model--this in stark contrast with the hard-boiled paperback fiction of the 1940s/50s. 

Just as those beautiful dolls on mid-century crime fiction paperbacks always seemed to be popping out of their dresses, the male lovelies on the covers of romantic fiction can't seem to keep their shirts buttoned (or even on, frequently).  Hence the need for those "rock hard pecs"!

It almost seems like Bill Crider anticipated the remarkable career of Jason Aaron Baca, who in 2017 passed Fabio as the model on the most romance novel covers--over 500 in the last decade!  That's a lot of romance for one mortal man. 

Originally not from Texas but California (though he does seem to frequently figure as shirtless southwestern cowboys on book covers), Baca broke into the cover model biz two decades ago, not long before A Romantic Way to Die was published, after he concluded, after being employed as a stunt double in the horror film I Know What You did Last Summer, that he would never make a successful actor.  Happily for him, he's been a fantastically successful cover model--indeed, the world's most successful cover model. (Sorry, Fabio!) 

Jason Aaron Baca is clearly the man Terry Don Coslin wanted so fervently to be in A Romantic Way to Die.  What happens to him and the other characters in this clever tale may not be romantic, but it sure is entertaining!  Read it and see for yourself.

In the novel, incidentally, the character of Thomas Chatterton always makes sure to remind people, almost always unnecessarily, that he is "no relation to the English poet," referencing the tragic 18th century youth of the same name.  You know who else drops Chatterton's name into one of his detective novels?  Michael Innes!  So, you see, Bill Crider is folksy yet literary too.  A man of parts, and the mystery world is richer for his three decades of crime writing.

See also my review of Bill Crider's A Mammoth Murder (2006).


  1. Sounds as if it would make a good companion read to Margaret Atwood's LADY ORACLE, also about a romance novelist, and my favorite of her novels so far. Fair play mystery and a sense of place and history...yes, very much value added , along with strong characterization, in the mystery field generally...even if it is the fence everyone is swinging for, theoretically. Thanks!

  2. This sounds excellent: I keep meaning to read Bill Crider, and seems like this would be a good one to start with: thanks.

  3. I like Bill's quirky little glances at life, whether romantic fiction here, or the oddball fossil enthusiasts in A Mammoth Murder, previously reviewed here. I think I may next take at look at one of his dealing with ghosts or maybe feral hogs--anything can happen in Blacklin County!