Hell with the Lid Blown Off
by Donis Casey

Poisoned Pen Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-464-20298-8.
Reviewed by Judy Alter
Posted on 08/05/2014

Fiction: Mystery; Fiction: Historical

As the title indicates, a twister is at the center of this mystery. I read the storm scene on a quiet early August night in North Central Texas—no clouds, no rain, temperature cooler than normal. And yet I kept glancing out the window, expecting to see sheets of driving rain, hail, bolts of thunder and a dark green sky. That's how powerful Donis Casey's description of the twister is.

I strained with the men and women who struggled to hold the storm cellar doors shut, and I cried with the frightened young girls. The aftermath of the storm was just as frightening: at night, with the land scoured dry of familiar horse paths and landmarks. A man on horseback could hardly tell where he was, let alone where he was headed and yet, fear for others gave urgency to his journey.

Hell with the Lid Blown Off, one character's description of the land, is an apt title. Along with the storm at the center of this novel, set in 1912 near Boynton,Oklahoma, is also murder. As Deputy Sheriff Trenton Calder rides through the devastated landscape, he finds a body and actually has to dig it out of the mud. Unable to identify the corpse, he takes it into town where the local undertaker identifies it as Jubal Beldon, probably the most hated man in the entire county. Jubal, leader of the unruly band of Beldon brothers, delighted in bullying people. Blackmail was his favorite scheme, and he had several current victims. There were, in short, a lot of people with reason to want Jubal dead. Then we learn from the undertaker that Jubal was dead before the twister carried his battered body with its wind.

Alafair Tucker, mother of ten and foster mother of a nephew, is at the center of this novel—the lynchpin of strength that holds her family together—as she has been in the six previous novels in the series. Fairly brief alternating voices tell us what is happening with each character; the list of characters at the beginning is really helpful for this.

All sections are in third person, except the passages by Trenton Calder, which are in first person. Calder, law official, smitten by Ruth Tucker, one of Alafair's daughters, and a good if somewhat na´ve guy, makes a good narrator who draws the many threads of this novel together. Alafair, however, is the one who follows her various suspicions, always gently, always in conversation, until she gets the murderer to confess. Her husband Shaw begs her to leave it alone, but she perseveres. Even the murder of Jubal Beldon, whose own mother doesn't seem much upset by his death, must be solved. It's part of the orderly community and world in which Alafair lives.

I have not read the previous books in the series—though now I'm going to. Since I read mostly contemporary mystery, I had my doubts about a novel set in 1912. Yet I was mesmerized by the mores, the manners, even the language of a century ago. The question of a gay couple came up—they are called Sodomites (a term Ruth has never heard and naively asks for an explanation of) and were in danger of imprisonment, if not lynched first. Trenton Calder blushed a lot in trying to explain these things to Ruth.

Donis Casey includes a helpful glossary at the back of the book. Here you will learn, for example, that "fashed" means upset. You will also find a section of "scratch" recipes that duplicate those that cooks of that day made without measuring or directions.

While there's murder and tension in Hell with the Lid Blown Off, in total it's a gentle mystery, as much to be admired for its thorough portrayal of life in rural Oklahoma in the early twentieth century as for the murder it presents and solves. I'm pleased to highly recommend this novel that I began with some hesitation. Congratulations to Donis Casey on a superb book that moves out of the box of the cozy mystery.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Donis Casey is the author six other Alafair Tucker Mysteries. She has twice won the Arizona Book Award and has been a finalist for the Willa Award and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her first novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, was named an Oklahoma Centennial Book. She lives in Tempe, Arizona. Read more about her books on her website.

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