Book 1 with Sheriff Dan Rhodes: Too Late to Die by Bill Crider
Many readers develop a deep affinity for a continuing detective or mystery series beyond well-sculpted plots, fast action, and wisecracks, that is, if they are going to stick with it for the long read. I know I do. An emotional hook, so to speak, that I can identify with in the main and supporting characters. In The Crime of Our Lives, Lawrence Block says: “We make our way through a series of books because we want to enjoy the company of a favorite character in a new situation.” Examples for me include Robert B. Parker’sSpenser, who epitomizes that code of honor he wears on his sleeve, in part, by his devotion to Susan and Hawk. With Ross Macdonald’s world-weary protagonist Lew Archer, I’m there for his sermonizing against the ills of humanity and the solutions he offers. Heck, even a career criminal likeRichard Stark’s Parker gets my thumbs-up for his outsider stance and honorable dedication to the job at hand. My warmth for Bill Crider’sSheriff Dan Rhodes is quite simple: he is a good man.
Sheriff Dan Rhodes is the kind of man I want for a neighbor and best friend. He’s a doting father to his daughter, Kathy and in this first novel, Too Late to Die, he’s still a husband grieving his late wife. As sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, (near eight thousand residents, give or take), he keeps plugging forward to carry out the job he was hired to do. And, like in most municipalities, the community is rife with shortsighted bureaucrats that Sheriff Rhodes must wade through, politely cutting down to size if need be, just to persevere.He doesn’t take himself too seriously and lets the air out of other civil servants who think they are high and mighty. Like Archer and Spenser, Rhodes is a continuing rush of fresh air in a genre that can copy itself into almost-irrelevance.
In Too Late to Die, we find Rhodes slightly out of step with the times when it comes to technology, but this is not out of ignorance:
Rhodes didn't mind taking the time, but he wasn't convinced that anything he found would be of help. He was a man who believed in his instincts. He liked to talk to people, listen to their stories, size them up. If they had anything to hide, he could usually find it out. But physical evidence didn't hurt anything when it was available.
And he will have to use all those instincts and more when a local, Jeanne Clinton, is murdered. The case couldn’t come at a worse time, professionally, for Rhodes who is up for re-election in less than a month. His opponent, Ralph Claymore, is a good-looking, political showboating bore, who is also merciless behind the scenes and won’t stop politicizing Jeanne’s death. Jeanne’s husband, Elmer, immediately clams up when Rhodes begins probing about the lady’s regular nighttime visitors, who came by their home while Elmer was working the night shift. From this straightforward setup, Crider adds textured layers that, before long, implicate various residents, including his political opponent. It also leads Rhodes into grave danger. As he is interviewing one potential suspect fishing along a stream, an assassin strikes:
What he remembered most, though, was the way that Bill Tompkin’s head just seemed to sort of come apart, and how Tomkins dropped like a rock, rolled a couple of times, and came to a stop in the water, with the red stain seeming quite brown as it widened around him.
Rhodes gives chase, losing the cutthroat. But rest assured, he will pick up the trail again, clear away some red herrings the author has planted, and finally confront a villain that I admit I didn’t see coming, though in retrospect, all the signs were there.
A definite reward of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes mysteries — beyond the well-developed protagonist, the wry humor, and plots humming along with generous doses of action — is Crider’s deft handling of the vibrant cast who make up the universe of Blacklin County. Some include: his intuitive daughter Kathy, who cares deeply for her father’s happiness; his second wife Ivy, who won’t admit (later in the series) that their two dogs and a cat cause Rhodes’ sneezing fits; the police sidekicks Hack and Lawton and their comic riffs; various deputies over the years; and Deputy Ruth Grady, whose pragmatic support is tops; and finally a lethargic housecat named Sam who Rhodes says is the “very model of energy conservation.” Crider’s laid-back dialogue will leave the reader chuckling along as Sheriff Dan strides through the cornucopia of humanity in this picturesque small town.
Too Late to Die is a top mystery, and I’d be surprised if this novel didn’t ignite a fire under you to burn through more of the twenty-two—and counting—books in this exceptional series.
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