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Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014 12:01 am

A crime, a cop, a judge and some oddballs

Springfield author’s latest mystery is a satisfying read

Widow, by Martha Miller. Bold Strokes Press, 2014.

With Widow, her sixth book, Springfield novelist Martha Miller has created a page-turning mystery, suspenseful and moving. When Judge Bertha Brannon’s significant other, Toni, a police officer, is murdered in a shootout, Bertha must deal not only with her grief, but with a growing number of questions. The more she asks about the nature of her companion’s murder, the more people around her are threatened or killed. The reader, along with Bertha, is compelled to find out what’s going on – and this, of course, is what we want in a mystery novel.

Bertha is a sympathetic character, a smart, wise-cracking African-American judge with a working-class past. An array of her old friends and quirky relatives make recurring appearances throughout the book, spicing things up along the way. There’s Bertha’s grandmother, a tough, salty woman who links up with men at the nursing home; Doree, Toni’s rebellious teenage daughter; Pop, a typical kindly grizzled veteran of the force; Norman Bates, an equally grizzled old cat; Billie, owner of a lesbian bar on the decline; and plenty more. Good cops and bad cops abound, and it isn’t always easy to tell which is which. The “bad guys” have their own stories, and are drawn in a rounded way that avoids stereotypes. These minor characters give Widow its charm and its sense of the unexpected; without them, the book might be in danger of falling into the patterns of “Law and Order:” a crime, a cop, a judge. Miller throws in enough oddball characters and situations to avoid this, while still satisfying the expectations of those of us who, well, get into “Law and Order.”

Widow has a driving plot, with twists that aren’t usually easy to anticipate. It clips along and is hard to put down. Its expert use of natural-sounding dialogue is part of what keeps it rolling; it’s often funny and always entertaining.

Widow has its serious sides, too, although these are never overly dwelled upon. Toni, the woman Bertha might have married had that been possible, has died, after all, and Bertha’s grief is sprinkled throughout the book. Miller never lets us forget for long. Bertha’s anxiety, loneliness, fear and loss of trust are all honestly addressed and ring true. Toni’s death also leaves open the question of whether Bertha has the legal right to care for the daughter she helped raise. On top of it, Bertha’s home is destroyed, leaving her without a place of her own. These realistic concerns ground the book and take it beyond the conventional mystery.

The settings are realistic, too, and are especially enjoyable if you’re familiar with the Springfield area. You’ll be going, yeah, I know that house, or, sure, that’s definitely a dark corner over there.

Widow has a few flaws, though these never get in the way. Although Bertha is a judge, I had a hard time entirely believing it, because the financial circumstances of her life seem too constrained, and she has few of the wider responsibilities a judge might have. On the other hand, Bertha’s experience within the judicial system does give her (and us) access to an array of police officers and criminals – a handy plot move. Another small downside of Widow is that I was able to figure out a few turns of the plot – but this could be said of just about any book or movie in the genre, and it didn’t take away from my satisfaction at the story’s almost comedic resolution.

While Widow will be marketed, I imagine, as a “lesbian mystery,” it really is a fine entry in the mystery genre, period. Bertha’s sexual orientation is who she is, and important because of that, but the book can and should be read by anyone who is just up for a suspenseful, fast-moving story. By the end of the book, Bertha felt like an old friend, and I was glad to have spent time in her world.

Becky Bradway’s book of essays, Pink Houses and Family Taverns, was published by Indiana University Press. Her craft book on creative nonfiction, Creating Nonfiction, was published by Bedford-St. Martin’s. She is currently revising her biographical novel about the poet Vachel Lindsay. Formerly from Springfield, she now lives in Denver with her husband and two big dogs.


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