One of the ironies of this title ts only partly apt. I knew Bill Crider was in hospice care when on Sunday I read Of All Sad Words, but I chose it for a less obvious reason from the dozens of Dan Rhodes mysteries I’d not yet read. It was one I downloaded recently after reading a review by Steve Lewis, one of Bill’s friends. Early Tuesday I learned we had lost Bill several hours before. So that sad irony is the apt one. The one Bill had in mind when he selected the title wasn’t so grim. He explained it at the beginning of chapter one. The thoughts are those of his chief character, Sheriff Dan Rhodes, reminiscing on his high school days and his inability to remember poetry: “the only rhyming lines he remembered were a couple that went ‘of all sad words of tongue or pen / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’
“Rhodes, having had those words stuck in his head for a large part of his life, might even have believed them at one time. Now, however, he was convinced that they were baloney. The saddest words of all were ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.’”
And of course the sheriff’s notion of saddest words is a recurring theme throughout the series, for him and many of the richly believable characters who populate Bill’s fictional Blacklin County, Texas. Some of these seemingly good ideas get folks in trouble with the law, and some of them, such as Rhodes’s Citizens’ Sheriff’s Academy, get Rhodes in trouble. At least it can seem like trouble in Of All Sad Words when, for example, Judge Jack Parry calls Rhodes into his office.
“You’ve created a bunch of vigilantes is what you’ve done,” the judge tells him. Rhodes does not roll over at this judicial thrust. “I think you’re wrong,” he parries. “We don’t have any vigilantes.”
Yet, as we’ve come to expect, Rhodes’s defense of his “good idea” runs into some rough water when the Academy’s most enthusiastic graduate, C.P. Benton, seems to have become a vigilante in the eyes of several in the community including Judge Parry who believes Benton to be a “wild-eyed radical.”
Now, many of us who are reading the Dan Rhodes series out of sequence are already familiar with “Seepy” Benton, the local college’s recently arrived math professor, amateur songster and self-proclaimed expert on pretty much anything, you name it. Benton makes his debut in Of All Sad Words, and, by gum if he doesn’t come across as an incorrigible community busybody if not the flaming nemesis of solid American capitalist values Judge Parry suspects him to be. Even some of us who’ve come to know Seepy might—like I did—worry a tad our brilliant gadfly was wandering a little farther into the danger zone than would be prudent for anyone not carrying a gun (Seepy, however, knows various fierce martial arts poses and does seem to be oblivious to fear, so there’s that). Just to be safe, though, I checked back with Steve Lewis at one point to make sure it was Seepy’s debut in the series and not his...ahem...valedictory, so to speak.
Anyway, Seepy (whom Lewis tells us Crider based on a friend) suspects his neighbors, a couple of bumpkin brothers, are making methamphetamine in their trailer home. But Rhodes hasn’t noticed the telltale odor given off by such an operation, and tells Seepy unless there’s evidence, there’s nothing the law can do about the brothers. Then the trailer blows up and one of the brothers is found shot to death near an illegal still in a wooded section of the property. This plot element quickly thickens with Rhodes trying to solve not only the murder but where in Blacklin County the moonshine the brothers were brewing was being sold.
As we’ve come to expect there are plenty of other plots, smaller ones, funny ones, such as the flying saucer phenomenon chronically bothering Dave Ellendorf, who’s complained the damned things “were spying on him, trying to abduct his two dogs, causing his chickens to stop laying, or making his house shift on its foundation.
“After each of the calls, Rhodes had paid a visit with his special ‘saucer detector, which consisted of a couple of circuit boards from old transistor radios. No saucers had been detected, and Ellendorf had been happy. Until the next time...”
Catching the drift, are we?
Rhodes is a likeable guy as well as being a good sheriff, but not nearly the star material Sage Barton is. Barton’s a fictional sheriff created by two local female novelists who’ve made it clear Rhodes is the model for their sheriff. Rhodes makes it clear to us he’s neither as slick with the ladies as Barton, nor as deft in a gunfight. Barton shoots guns out of bad guys’ hands and executes the occasional back-flip while doing so. Rhodes gets into his share of scrapes and dire situations, including exchanging gunfire with a couple of baddies who turn up from time to time in Blacklin County. This time their big black pickup truck tries to run Rhodes down at least twice and does manage to crush to death a suspected moonshine peddler against a dumpster behind a restaurant.
Oh, and we mustn’t forget Rhodes’s Indian Head penny. His father gave it to him when he was about to enter the first grade in school. He keeps it now and sometimes carries it, but not as a good-luck piece, so he claims.
“He didn’t really believe in luck,” we are told, “but he did believe in the whimsical nature of things.”
And so did Bill Crider.
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]