I had to review the latest Sam McCain mystery by Ed Gorman entitled Riders on the Storm. Since I was unfamiliar with the series, it prompted me to at least read the first book entitled The Day the Music Died. It is quite an enjoyable series. There are 10 books including the latest, spanning 1958 – 1971 and the titles are the names of songs popular during the year the action takes place.
The setting is Black River Falls, Iowa, a town of approximately 25,000. Everyone knows everyone else and the books aptly portray small town life.
The Day the Music Died: In 1958 the unfortunate deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J. P. the “Big Bopper” Richardson occurred. Sam McCain, small town lawyer and sometimes private investigator is devastated. He saw them the night before in Cedar Rapids with Pamela Forrest, a girl he’s loved since fourth grade who does not reciprocate the feelings.
In the wee hours of the next morning, he is called by Judge Whitney, for whom he investigates. Her nephew, Kenny called her very distraught, and McCain is needed at Kenny’s house. Upon arriving, he discovers Kenny’s wife shot to death and Kenny is brandishing a gun. McCain seems to calm Kenny somewhat, but soon after Kenny manages to go to an upstairs bedroom and shoot his head off.
Bumbling sheriff Cliff Sykes is happy for two reasons: (1) it seems to be an open and shut case of murder/suicide and (2) the Sykes and Whitneys, the two richest families in town, hate each other and revel in ways to drag the others’ name through the mud. However, McCain doesn’t think Kenny murdered his wife and Judge Whitney hangs on to that thought prodding McCain to prove it.
McCain is a plodder. He has no brainstorms, no ah-ha moments. In many respects things happen to him vs. him making things happen. While dealing with the investigation, McCain also has to deal with some family matters and his unrequited love for Pamela. The book also introduces Mary Hardy who loves McCain but whose feelings for her are uncertain. These quandaries carry through to the latest book as well.
Riders on the Storm: It is 1971, the height of the Vietnam War. The night after Steve Donovan beat up Willie Cullen at an afternoon party in which Donovan announced his Congressional candidacy, he was murdered. Cullen was charged with the crime. Donovan, a recent Vietnam veteran running on a patriotism platform, disliked Cullen, also a veteran, because of his affiliation with a veterans group denouncing the war. Few of Cullen’s friends think he is capable of murder despite having been institutionalized twice after returning from the war. However, he does have motive, opportunity and means: the murder weapon was found in the back seat of his car. Attorney and private investigator Sam McCain, Cullen’s friend of twenty five years, ‘knows’ Cullen is innocent and sets out to prove it or at least plant reasonable doubt in the mind of the new sheriff. However, it is proving difficult because Cullen is hospitalized again and will not speak.
While trying to prove his friend’s innocence McCain also struggles with his own recent soldiering injuries and commitment issues with his girlfriend Mary. McCain hides neither his anti-war sentiment nor his disgust with politicians supporting the war but managing to keep their sons at home.
McCain can be forceful, humorous and tender. There is little violence but enough action in these books. I enjoy McCain’s liberal slant on the issues of the day. He deals with racism, Communism, abortion, Vietnam. These are satisfying stories for mystery fans who also like the human side of their detectives. I happen to like a series where the protagonists age and their lives change accordingly and this surely fits the bill.
I will warn you, though. You will not be able to figure out ‘who done it’. If you somehow manage, you have to let me know how you did. I wasn’t even close.
An easy read (two-three days at most) but quite enjoyable.