You fall asleep in Mayberry, North Carolina, and wake up to find yourself in Blacklin County, Texas. It might take you awhile to realize you've been transported.You have the same hawhaw country laughs and foolishness, but instead of Andy and Barney running things you have Sheriff Rhodes and Hack & Lawton. And interrupting the foolishness and hawhaws every so often you'll find youself in the middle of real crimes, everyday crimes up to and including murder. Of the two dozen "episodes" of Bill Crider's Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mysteries series, Dead To Begin With is the most recent. I've read the first one and a couple in between, with more waiting in my Kindle library. I'm almost a permanent Blacklin County resident by now, and I like it. But I have no intention of running for sheriff there. Rhodes has more hair than I do and more patience than I ever would, considering Hack, his dispatcher, and Lawton, his jailer, haven't driven him crazy by now. Here they are, by sheer coincidence, discussing the sheriff's hair:
"'What he called about is a bad haircut,'" Hack said, referring to a call he'd just received from a citizen.
“'I had one of those once,' Lawton...said as he walked in from the cellblock. 'Wanted to stay in bed for a week but had to work instead. Wore a ball cap all day for a while.'
“'I remember that,' Hack said. 'That was a good while ago. Back when you had hair.'
“'I got hair. More hair than some I could name.'
“'You talkin’ about me or the sheriff? ’Cause he’s the one got the thin spot in back. I still got all my own hair. Mostly.'
"Rhodes knew what they were doing. He’d thought for years it was a conspiracy to drive him crazy, but he’d decided it wasn’t, not really. They dragged everything out simply because they couldn’t help themselves. Or because they thought of themselves as the Abbott and Costello of Blacklin County, Texas, a duo to whom they bore a physical resemblance.
Even though I've kinda gotten to like them—at a distance--I would have to fire them both, which is why I could never be sheriff of Blacklin County. Also, I'm much too chicken to inspect the catwalk above the Opera House stage, not to mention trying to pull myself to safety if rotten boards give way under my feet, which is what Rhodes does and then is needled mercilessly by Hack and Lawton who see the video shot by a local freelance Internet journalist. And someone has to inspect the catwalk because Jacob "Jake" Marley, the murder victim, plunged to his death from there. Marley'd bought the old abandoned theater and was fixing it up with the intent of staging a Texas version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Marley'd left in his will that he wanted several former high school classmates of his to play the parts, except for Jacob Marley's ghost, which Jake Marley had reserved for himself. Fifty years hence, the classmates are still in Blacklin County, and Sheriff Rhodes must try to figure out which one of them murdered Marley—if in fact he was murdered. Rhodes thinks he probably was, but the motive, if any, is elusive.
A realist, Rhodes knows the odds are against him. He "knew he wasn’t Sherlock Holmes, and he knew that CSI: Blacklin County was never likely to become a hit TV series. Or any kind of TV series. Rhodes relied mainly on talking to people and waiting for someone to lie to him or make a mistake that would lead him to the answers he was looking for." Sort of a country bumpkin Columbo—with thinning hair.
Hair is a recurring gag. Here he is talking to a couple of hairdressers he's just saved their shop from being smashed up with a sledgehammer by a disappointed customer:
“'You want a haircut on the house?” Lonnie asked. 'I could give you what we call the Brad Pitt cut. Looks tousled all the time but still looks really good. What do you think, Eric?'
“'He’s definitely the Brad Pitt type,' Eric said. 'A little taller than Brad, though.'
"Rhodes didn’t think he was the Brad Pitt type at all.
“'I don’t know about that thin spot in the back of your hair, Sheriff,' Eric said. 'That might not work with a Brad Pitt cut.'"
One might wonder if indeed Hack and Lawton had planted a bad seed in their boss's head. Here's more evidence of his sudden obsession with hair:
He observes that a suspect he's interviewing has thck, wavy hair with "no thin spot in the back." And another suspect's hair was "thin all over, so thin on top that his scalp showed through. Rhodes wondered how long it would be before his own hair became like that." The sheriff inspects even a female suspect, noting that "her smooth brown hair hung just about to her collar. Rhodes was sure that the cut wasn’t a Brad Pitt, and it didn’t look like Elaine’s classic bob, so Rhodes had no idea what to call it. To him it was just a haircut."
If it seems I'm making Rhodes look ridiculous, I apologize. It's not my intention. Maybe I'm the one with the hair obsession. Rhodes is a very human fellow (I almost wrote "for a cop," but that would be a cheap shot. I know some deeply human police officers. Rhodes, though fictional, is one of them). He's unseasy examining the dead Jake Marley's body on the Opera House stage:
"Rhodes wondered if he’d ever get accustomed to death. He’d seen many dead bodies, too many of them, and every time he felt a kind of sadness come over him. Some people reached out and embraced life, and some people, like [the reclusive] Marley, shut themselves away from it, but they all came to the same end.
"It wasn’t as if Rhodes had known Marley. He’d hardly ever spoken to him, but the death of any person took something out of the world that couldn’t be returned, no matter what the person had been."
Here he tries to avoid one of the endless arguments Hack seems to love to start: "Rhodes started to argue, but thought better of it. He wouldn’t be able to change Hack’s mind, no matter what. It wasn’t just Hack, either. Rhodes’s experience had been that he’d never changed anybody’s mind by arguing with them. He thought that when the rest of the world caught on to that important truth, things would change for the better."
When Jennifer, the freelance journalist, tries buttering him up to get an interview, claiming he "gets a lot of respect," Rhodes reminds himself he's the "Rodney Dangerfield of sheriffs." He doesn't tell her that, but he gives her the interview.
Dead to Begin With is another enjoyable canter in the series. The pacing is smooth and easy, with a seamless mix of gentle humor and serious police work. I've come to regard Dan Rhodes as a friend. And I'd buy Hack and Lawton a beer were I to run into them in a bar, but I'd get the hell out of there before they started in on me.
The book's title? Straight from Dickens: Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
[For more tributes to Bill Crider check the links Friday on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]