Janice Hamrick’s understanding of human behavior and emotion brings a depth and weight to a subgenre of mystery often referred to as “light.” Her Austin high school teacher protagonist Jocelyn Shore, a realist who would like to be a romantic with a sense of justice and protective love of her own, is willing to get her hands dirty to find the killer. In her latest, Death Rides Again, Hamrick makes murder a family affair. A great opening sentence that sets up plot, tone, and her heroine’s voice:
“The day Eddy Cranny got himself murdered started out bad and went downhill from there…especially for Eddy.”
We first meet Eddy when he’s being threatened with a shotgun by Jocelyn’s uncle Kel. Jocelyn and her cousin Kyla, who often serves as her Watson, have traveled to their hometown of Sandcreek, Texas for a Thanksgiving family reunion. Needless to say, we soon find out they aren’t the Brady Bunch as Jocelyn intercedes the shotgun incident after Kel discovers Eddy has been beating on his girlfriend Ruby June; Jocelyn’s cousin and Kel’s daughter. After the situation is diffused, they discover that Ruby June is gone.
Jocelyn and Kyla’s search for for their cousin takes them around Sand Creek, skillfully rendered by Hamrick in its decorative limbo between Thanksgiving and Christmas, introducing us to its citizens and suspects outside the family. After the search proves fruitless, they return to the ranch where Collin, Jocelyn’s cop boyfriend (or possible boyfriend, which is dealt with in a subplot) is waiting. Later that night, they discover Eddie’s body in his pickup.
The mystery involves corruption, horse racing, drug cartels, and even lions, tigers, and bears. Most of all, it explores family dynamics. As an author introducing so many characters, Hamrick understands the use of stereotypes, as well as how we do this to our own family members, then quickly begins to shade them with dimension. Much of the humor involves how little doubt Jocelyn has in her family being involved with blackmail and murder. Hamrick also looks at the tribalism of family. Jocelyn may refer to half her clan as “rabid hillbillies hopped up on Judge Judy and reruns of CSI”, but nobody else better insult or mess with them.
Death Rides Again shows Janice Hamrick’s skill as an author. Her style serves her characters and story without heavy author flourishes. Being naturally unique, hers is an effortless voice (the kind that much effort and talent are poured into) that easily moves from humorous, romantic, suspenseful, and poignant, because it is so human. It’s a voice I look forward to hearing again.