By Gary Kriss
Spring fever, coupled with a full moon, arrives in tiny Park County, Tennessee. It induces the well-named madness in its residents and visitors alike. At a festival to honor ramps, a pungent member of the onion/garlic family, the party is disrupted when a potato launched by a cannon strikes, and apparently kills, the unpopular game warden, known as Hairy Rags.
The fourth in the “Quilted Mystery” series featuring Tennessee Sheriff Tony Abernathy and his wife Theo, a dedicated quilter.
All you legions of Barbara Graham readers rejoice: her new book MURDER BY VEGETABLE: THE BABY QUILT (Gale, October 2012), the fourth installment in her delightful Quilted Mystery series, stinks.
It’s not the writing; it’s not the plot; it’s the ramps.
Graham’s up front about the ramps when she summarizes the book: “Spring fever, a full moon and the inaugural Ramp Festival create massive problems for Park County Tennessee Sheriff Tony Abernathy. The party celebrating the noxious vegetable is halted by the sudden death of their unpopular game warden. A growing roadside memorial, arson and bank robbery add to Tony’s work load. Meanwhile, his wife Theo is collection news at her quilt shop, known as ‘gossip central’ and designing a mystery quilt (pattern included).”
See—“Ramp Festival” and “noxious vegetable.” But what do you expect from a woman who declares, “I don’t eat ramps.” (Chocolate is her secret vice, if you must know.)
Does she dislike them enough to use them as an instrument of murder? Will ramps join the ranks (no pun intended) of vicious veggies, including the deadly delicacies immortalized on celluloid in the classic “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”? (Of course, it wouldn’t be sporting to tell. However, since Graham herself said the idea for the book came from “a television show with vegetables shot from cannons and a trebuchet,” let’s just say that the vegetable didn’t act alone: homemade vegetable weapons, displayed and demonstrated at the Ramp Festival, played a large part.)
And that’s important, since Graham says that her male protagonist, Tony Abernathy, the Park County sheriff, his wife and his small staff,” all have parts to play in the county’s crime wave.” And while “there are definite cozy quilt connections” in MURDER BY VEGETABLE, Graham notes that “it is more about law enforcement in tiny Park County than gossip.” (Still, Graham fans need not despair: gossip, a hallmark of the series, is still satisfyingly present.)
Are Graham’s works thrillers or mysteries? “I think of thriller and mystery as cousins, related under the category of Crime Fiction,” she says, adding that the “scope” of a book is a major determinant. “A thriller sets the characters on a course than can affect the entire planet,” she says. “A major disaster must be stopped. A bomb, germs, monster dinosaurs. In a mystery, the central characters are trying to return order—find the killer, the missing jewels, and maybe the entire story takes place in a single house.”
Graham goes on to note the changes how thrillers and mysteries have changed in recent years. “I think the advent of super weapons has definitely ramped up the danger in a thriller,” she says. “One button can destroy the world. Mysteries, at least those set in the present day, are more immediate and have more science in the investigation than previously.”
What about those who characterize Graham’s books as “cozies”? “The main hallmarks of cozies are the lack of profanity, sex and gore,” she explains. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have characters and events using them—just don’t show it.”
And characters doing anything are key for the 64 year-old Graham. “My books are character driven,” she says. “I think the things people do to themselves and others are unlimited.” So it’s not surprising that the most important advice she offers to writers is “know your characters.” With this in mind, Graham can state emphatically that she’s not Theo Abernathy, Tony’s wife whose quilt shop doubles as “Gossip Central,” although she concedes that they “share certain traits,” namely “female, mother and quilter.” Indeed, there might be more of her in Tony, Theo’s sheriff husband, with whom she shares “wanting justice in this world, writing and being lazy.”
Place is also a critical part of Graham’s books, although she isn’t sure whether being a former travel agent had anything to do with this. “Whether a real or imaginary place, on this planet or another, place is part of us,” she says. “A common question is ‘where do you live?’ or ‘where do you come from?’ We are deeply influenced by geography, weather, community, architecture. It affects what we wear, the required space we need between ourselves and others, our language and even our foods. A thriller set in a skyscraper cannot be the same as one set in the Grand Canyon.”
So why does a long-time resident of Wyoming use Tennessee as the setting for her series? “I was living in New Orleans and took a driving trip up through parts of the Southeast United States,” Graham says. “I found the Smoky Mountains beautiful and mysterious. So, I moved there. I didn’t visit for a long time but now go maybe every two years. “
What she’ll take along to read when she makes the next trip is anyone’s guess. Graham’s list of favorite authors is a movable feast, which “changes from day to day.” At the moment, for example, it includes Charles Todd and Victor Hugo, although there are some comfortable staples, the Hardy Boys in particular. “The Hardy Boy books taught me mystery, crime and punishment—especially if I borrowed from my brother without asking,” she confesses. And while Graham points to “Moby Dick” with one hand as the book she wishes she had written, she also points to it with the other as the most over-rated book ever written. It did, however, teach her a valuable lesson: “Put a whale in a book and it’s a best seller” (In case you’re wondering, her choice for the most under-rated novel is MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS by Gerald Durrell. “I adored every page,” she says. “Interesting characters in intriguing places are memorable.”)
Turning to her own books, Graham, whose motto is “every bed needs a quilt and every book needs a dead body,” expects her fifth Quilted Mystery, MURDER BY SUNLIGHT, to appear next fall. As always, sprinkled throughout will be clues/instructions for making the quilt associated with the book. (Graham says that if she was a quilt, “I would want to be a well-loved quilt with frayed edges and a bit of dog hair.) At the moment she’s working on MURDER BY GRAVITY and eying a 2014 publication date. She’s also started “a mystery set during the Paris Exhibition and the Eiffel Tower,” hoping that “a stand-alone suspense will find a publisher.” Chances are, she’ll find one since she offers that “I’m mule stubborn.” (Graham also says being stubborn is her strongest suit as a writer and being lazy, her weakest, allowing that “it’s a weird combination.”)
Stand-alone or series, Graham, a self-proclaimed “flake” who’s “often entertained by my screw ups” will keep to the same writing routine: “Morning coffee on the couch with a dog. Staring into space and playing ‘what if’ with a pen and notebook. After a walk, I sit at the computer and turn it into story line.” Stints at a messy desk, “made of an old door sitting on two file cabinets and right next to the door into the dog yard, mandate “blinds over the window to prevent my staring out at the scenery.” Music is banned because, Graham says, “I used to be a dance teacher. If music is on, I find myself doing choreography instead of murder. And the finished product will be shown first to her editor, not to Dennis, her husband of 34 years, who both encourages and humors her.
Then she may indulge in quilting or, if the season is right, gardening, an activity that, on occasion, has been responsible for Graham abandoning her daily word count.
Chances are good that she won’t be planting ramps.
Barbara began making up stories in the third grade. Learning to multiply and divide paled in comparison. She is an unrepentant quilting addict in addition to a compulsive writer. She lives in Wyoming with her long suffering husband and two dogs.
To learn more about Barbara, please visit her website.