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Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Branson Beauty by Claire Booth

Minotaur, 320 pages, $25.99

Are you looking for a good, old-fashioned locked-room mystery? Claire Booth wrote one.

Hank Worth is the Sheriff of Branson, Missouri. Yes, the Branson of hillbillies, country-western music, water parks, and dinner theater. Hank is, however, a work of fiction. So, too, is the Branson Beauty, a paddle steamer plying a nearby lake in the Ozarks. Hank is called out in freezing temperatures to help rescue the passengers of the Branson Beauty when it runs aground. He finds a catatonic pilot, upset, mostly elderly passengers, and the dead body of a college student.

Mandy Bryson was a good girl, a star athlete, and friend to all. Why would anyone want to murder her? Perhaps it was her no-account ex-boyfriend who had summarily dismissed her for another. Perhaps it was the anonymous stalker who had been sending increasingly frantic love notes. Perhaps it was her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. The catch is that she was murdered in a section of the boat that had been locked off from most of the other passengers and crew. Only one of the people, mostly ones she knew, who were attending her ex-boyfriend’s grandmother’s birthday party in the private dining room or the boat’s staff piloting the boat or serving the private meal could have done it. The pilot was her old high school track coach. His assistant was the brother of one of her teammates. The actor hired to enliven the boat tour was well-known locally, and the cook comforted her as she cried about the cruelty of her ex-boyfriend. It is hard to imagine that any one of them could have had a motive.

Hank has only been on the job for a few months, hired to replace his predecessor who has gone on to the state legislature. He traded big city policing for the quiet, he thought, lifestyle of a small town. He and his wife have moved to Branson to take care of his acerbic father-in-law, Duncan. In fact, it is Duncan who takes care of Hank’s family as caregiver to Hank and his wife’s two young children.

From Sheila, the competent, no-nonsense deputy, to Sam, the eager deputy Hank has labeled, “The Pup,” Hank mostly has a competent staff. Apparently, the staff hasn’t ever been put to quite such a test as the current shipwreck, murder, political corruption, and traitorous acts of someone in Hank’s own department have provided.

The continuing catatonia of the pilot and seemingly impeccable behavior of Mandy give Hank nothing to grab onto. He is left with trying to figure out who Mandy’s stalker was. Then the incapacitated showboat burns up and sinks and adds to Hank’s woes. Was it caused by a fuel line that ruptured when the paddlewheel was removed or was it arson? If it was arson, why would that be connected to Mandy's death?

Booth handles her characters well. Hank is a good, down-to-earth, smart, family-oriented man. His wife, Maggie, is still a bit of a lightly sketched character, but their children, Maribel and Benny, are kid-like kids, a relief after reading many books in which children are preternaturally somber or traumatized. Sheila and Sam, the deputies, are competent and slowly allowed to come into their own personalities. Some of the bigger villains are one-dimensionally villainous, but that turns out to be okay. The better to really dislike them. The solutions to the various mysteries that crop up are tied up in a traditional Agatha Christie fashion with tidy confessions, but that, too, is okay. The better to sleep at night.

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