The Branson Beauty by Claire Booth is the debut book in the Sheriff Hank Worth Mystery series. (Available July 19, 2016).
I watched a comedy sketch from the 1950s that poked fun at the overabundance of television shows about the Old West lawmen. In a side-splitting parody, these keepers of the peace were literally bumping into each other in a ridiculously imagined “what if” scenario. During the Eisenhower era, every channel you tuned into had another Western on the TV…in 1959 alone, twenty-six Westerns aired during primetime.
Our modern equivalent in literature and film may just be the lone sheriff in the small American town, surrounded by bureaucratic dimwits and his (the scales do seem tipped to the testosterone side) is the sole reasoning voice. Names like Walt Longmire, Dan Rhodes, Quinn Colson, Jack Carter, and Harry S. Truman top my list of personal favorites.
A trademark of the county sheriff is that he’s emotionally wounded in some way, either by a wife’s passing or some bygone unsolved case that’s still weighing heavy. Occasionally, he has a drinking problem that he’s just barely controlling, and often, his underling—who’s far more resourceful in key categories—is ready to step in and take over should he falter.
Usually, this quiet (the tight-lipped protagonist once again seems to be a staple), guilt-laden loner was destined for greater things but finds himself stuck in his position. When written well, it’s a familiar set of ingredients that lends itself well to repeated trips down the main street. I was pondering all this when I was asked to review Claire Booth’s The Branson Beauty (The 1st in the new Sheriff Hank Worth Mystery series). My antenna went up, wondering if there was room for—excuse the pun that I’ve been waiting to use—a new sheriff in town?
Hank is newly in charge of law enforcement for fictional Branson County (which represents Southern Missouri, where the city of Branson does exist in Taney County, but the one featured here resembles the real city only in its attractions and tourism), and we catch him in full stride as he’s responding to a luxury boat, The Branson Beauty, that has run aground with a group of one-hundred plus mostly elderly tourists in frigid weather.
It’s decided the silver-haired guests will stay put while the officials remove the paddlewheel that has become lodged. If dealing with the nightmare logistics of rescuing the passengers while keeping the snoopy media at bay isn’t enough, Hank and his team’s efforts are further complicated when a gruesome discovery is found in the captain’s dining room:
And then he saw the hand. Long, elegant, and white, it peeked out from an edge of the tablecloth. Hank stepped forward and around the end of the table. A woman lay behind it. Her brown hair spread around her on the blue carpet as if she were underwater. Her green dress billowed around her knees, and her red, hemorrhaged eyes stared at the gold-detailed ceiling. A ring of bruises circled her neck. Rigor was setting in.
The victim is identified as Mandy Bryson, an “almost” homecoming queen (shades of Laura Palmer’s hidden complicated life); she’d been strangled. At first, the chief suspect is Albert, the boat’s captain, who is found in a state of “oh my god I just ran the boat ashore and ruined my career” intoxication. Others include haughty Gallagher, president of the company that owns the boat, who seems more concerned with his business’s reputation than a teenager’s untimely death, and Mandy’s ex-boyfriend, Ryan, whose family had rented the dining room where her body was found.
Adding to the thorny intrigue, Ryan, his new girlfriend, and Ryan’s mom claim not to have seen Mandy at the event. Ryan’s grandmother, on the other hand, not only saw her, but had invited her to the gathering, then watched as the girl’s heart shattered at the sight of Ryan’s new love. There are many more suspects Hank must weed through in the typical “ask a question, get a stonewalled answer” investigation, standard to a majority of mystery novels.
In a rewarding turn, Ms. Booth decided to make Hank Worth a family man with a wife and kids, and then gave him the added “baggage” of his father-in-law, Duncan, living with them. Dunc, as he is referred to, doesn’t seem to get (or more likely he does and is a purposeful nuisance) that Hank has an involved job and routinely leaves phone messages for him to run this or that errand. These rich characters add a sense of balance as well as insight into Hank’s persona, removing him from the cliché of the lone-wolf detective.
After that first, long night of identifying Mandy’s body and informing her parents, Hank checks in on his sleeping daughter and is emotionally moved by his cherub safe and sound, bringing Mandy’s death up close and personal by revealing a fear all parents share at one time or another. Not a depth we would get with the “devil may care, I got nothing to lose” detectives. Still, Ms. Booth, knowing her audience, adds healthy amounts of action to keep the plot flowing.
He had plowed another fifty feet in when he caught a blur out of the edge of his eye. He didn't even think—just drew his gun as he dropped to one knee and spun to his right. He found himself staring at the muzzle of a rifle and a camouflaged form half-hidden by a shortleaf pine tree. Neither of them moved.
Without a doubt, I enthusiastically say we should make room for another sheriff. Absolutely. I can’t say any new ground has been necessarily forged, per se, but given the opportunity, I’d gladly return to Sheriff Hank Worth’s Branson County and watch him solve another head-scratching mystery. He’s likable, resourceful, and dry witted when the passage calls for him to deliver.
The Branson Beauty has the voice of a polished pro, not that of a debut effort. Much credit to Ms. Booth’s deft handling of material, invoking freshness into the proceedings and building a core with heart in this fine and moving mystery novel.
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David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and author of The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.