Leave Tomorrow Behind by Judy Clemens
Leave Tomorrow Behind by Judy Clemens (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the sixth in the Stella Crown mystery series and something of a novelty for me. I’ve been dipping an experimental toe into the so-called cozy mystery market scene. So far, the temperature has been very variable from the tepid to just right on the Goldilock’s scale of readability. I’ve yet to find anything outstanding. I think it would be fair to brand this novel as my first truly bucolic mystery. This refers both to the subject matter which revolves around dairy farming, and to the pace of the book which is at a shucks y’all meander while the reader meditatively chews on a random straw plucked from behind an ear. At this point, I need to declare a special interest because I spent years living in an isolated house completely surrounded by dairy farms with cattle in all the fields during the summer months, and sheep taking over for grazing during the winter. I’m therefore used to dealing with cows which are prone to wander when given the chance. Let’s just say, cows and I get on whereas sheep are the most intensely stupid animals I’ve ever had to deal with. I’ve also spent weeks of each year in agricultural shows and have watched the judging of animals and other competitive aspects of country life — at least with the cooking by farmers’ wives, you could enjoy the fruits of their labour once the judging was over.
Now we’ve got my prejudices out into the open, I can talk about the book and you can judge whether I’m being fair. The bulk of this book is set in a county fair and revolves around two aspects of local life. The first is a program specifically designed to encourage the next generation to put down their smartphones every now and then to care for calves. This is a canny strategy to help preserve some continuity in the farming community, giving the young a chance to feel pride in their accomplishments when animals they have cared for are shown in a ring for judging. In this case, her young protégé and employee Zach is showing a calf and his rising hormone levels as various degrees of feminine pulchritude parade about the fair. The second is the polar opposite — the Lovely Miss Pennsylvania Pageant. I share the same prejudices as the author against beauty pageants and the appalling competitiveness of mothers who primp and preen their daughters so they become caricatures of femininity who know nothing more than how to twirl a baton and embrace world peace as their passion in life.
All this would be just a part of life’s rich pattern but for the arrival of handsome Nick in her life. Unfortunately with great male beauty comes the heavy responsibility of dealing with Miranda, her future sister-in-law. This monomaniacal woman is fixated by the competing ideas that Stella is only after Nick’s money, and that if she can’t talk them out of marrying, they will at least go through a marriage designed by her. As a biker chick when younger, Stella’s idea of a wedding is turning up in front of a local judge still wearing her boots and jeans, saying the words in the right order, and then getting back to the farm in time to do the milking. The battle lines are therefore drawn as they descend upon the fair only to find distractions, first with the Gregg family who cheat to win the cattle judging competitions, and the impressive Rikki Raines, a new country singer being groomed for success by Mr Gregg. When the songstress ends up dead after her concert, Stella finds herself in the limelight thanks to an abrasive young homicide detective and a YouTube video. To get people to leave her alone, she therefore sets out to solve the case.
The structure of the book is slightly unusual in mystery terms because the murder itself is almost peripheral to everything else going on in Stella’s life. This would not be a problem if the character of Stella was completely engaging, but while she’s very knowledgeable about farming in general and understands how other people relate to each other, her interpersonal skills are less than endearing. She’s obviously lovable because she has a solid relationship with Nick and one or two others in the local community. But she’s immensely prickly and not a little quirky making it difficult to like her. In particular, the running battle with Miranda, while no doubt not unrealistic when two families are coming together, dominates and distracts from the more interesting events at the fair. Even though Miranda does prove useful in engineering a number of meetings at the end of the book which help finally resolve the mystery, I suspect many readers will feel profoundly grateful when she’s abandoned at the end.
This leaves me thinking Leave Tomorrow Behind is interesting as a mystery with the strands of motive nicely interwoven into the broader narrative, and some of the observational content on the young of this rural area is just right, but you need a little patience to get through all the “cow” stuff and Stella herself is not always as likeable as you might expect from the protagonist of a bucolic mystery.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.