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Thursday, May 26, 2011 05:23 am

A Springfield author’s likeable murderers

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Retirement Plan: A Crime Novel, by Martha Miller. Bold Strokes Books, 312 pp, May 2011.

She’s done it again! Martha Miller, our local crime-fiction author whose two previous Springfield detective books are so stellar, has a newcomer. It’s the best yet. It’s titled Retirement Plan: A Crime Novel, and in a recent talk at the Sangamo Club Literary Circle, Martha said of it, “It’s ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ but with an M-16.” Without giving anything away I can reveal this much: two elderly women, living on Social Security, decide to implement their inadequate income by becoming hired assassins. Yes, they have some unique skills. However, they only dispatch those who richly deserve the honor, those who have evaded detection and prosecution, and will strike again, soon. The women do their homework thoroughly; they know their victims are victimizers.

 We’re aware of the likeable murderers from the start, but the likeable detective is vastly puzzled. Morgan Holiday needs to solve the case of the sniper killings for more than her job; the narrator lets us know her personal life and problems. This creates a dilemma. We want our ol’ ladies to ride off into a Florida sunset with cash in the trunk, but we also want our detective to succeed. We root for both sides, with hardly a clue as to how it will end.

This is the most complicated of Miller’s novels. There are subplots within subplots, plus many characters. We get to know them all, in rich detail. No player is gratuitous, from the various children, some safe and protected, some victims – some both – from Holiday’s detective partners and boss, to the pinochle-playing oldsters and the dog next door: each contributes to the story, which weaves like a crazy quilt, or occasionally falls suddenly into order before veering off again. It all works. At the start I got a bit impatient with these “back stories” to the various plot aspects – let’s get on with the tale! – but I soon realized that not only was the information revealed necessary to the story overall, but that each back story was a gem of storytelling in itself.

There is violence and sex aplenty in Retirement Plan, but adroitly done. We are led with detail to the brink of such action – or arrive just after it – so that we know what will transpire or has already done so. As readers we are credited with brains to supply what’s needed. Again, it works.

This book makes us think – as most such books don’t, beyond the whodunit. Is the killing repugnant to our killers? If so, do they come to enjoy it, even relish it? Would we do it, under the circumstances? For it isn’t just for the money. And how do we consider vigilantism?

There are some questions not fully answered. Where do the ordinary folk who hire come up with the money? How can our “good guys” and their hirers possibly avoid some sort of paper trail? And, how the heck does Martha Miller know so much? It is strongly contemporary – it’s both a heavy yet lighthearted social studies text (or newspaper) bringing in many of the difficult problems of our current society.

As to the prose, Miller beautifully describes strained, even desperate, human relationships with compassion and tenderness. She makes her characters and their actions believable. She is a wise woman, who also does her homework well, in her heart as well as her head.

Here’s a book worth reading.

Contact Jacqueline Jackson at jjack1@uis.edu.

Martha Miler will be available to sign copies of her book, Retirement Plan: A Crime Story, from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 28 at Prairie Archives, 522 E. Adams, in downtown Springfield.

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