Sharon Fiffer: Scary Stuff

This was a very pleasant surprise. I’ve read several of the Jane Wheel mysteries and found them enjoyable—I have an uncomfortable feeling that our collection of books rivals Jane’s collection of “stuff”—but this book is, to me, by far the strongest entry yet. How delightful that a writer, six books into an established series, hits a real home run. Often mysteries are well written, but not so often are they actually “mysterious.” On this front Fiffer delivers in spades.

For those unfamiliar with these books, Jane Wheel is both a “picker”—i.e. she goes to garage and estate sales looking for “stuff,” and a private eye in training. Jane’s eye rests on the formerly quotidian—buttons, potholders, kitchen utensils, etc. Her future private eye partner and former cop, Bruce Oh, has a wife named Claire whose eye rests on the higher end. And working with Jane is the delightful Tim Lowry, slightly more technologically savvy than Jane but just as obsessed as she is with “stuff.” These characters are a wonderful base for the books, especially Bruce Oh, who serves a function much like Yoda’s in the Star Wars films, uttering profundities that take awhile to unravel. Like Luke Skywalker, Jane is a willing student.

What sets this book a bit apart from the others was the deeper look at Jane’s family. Her parents, Nellie and Don, but especially Nellie, have always been wonderful background for the books and for Jane. In this one, her parents, who own the struggling EZ Way Inn in Kankakee, Illinois, are front and center. The book kicks off as Jane is visiting her brother in California. They’re having dinner out with the family (including Jane’s stuff obsessed niece, Q), when someone comes up to Michael and offers to punch his lights out. Then a closer look at Michael’s face gets the guy to back off. Michael confesses to Jane that this has happened a few times, and it appears to be tied to an eBay seller who looks very much like Michael and who has been cheating people. Jane’s hackles, and suspicions, are aroused and she goes back home to Illinois full of questions about her brother.

She’s back in Kankakee with her friend Tim following up a lead on Michael’s doppleganger when she and Tim stumble into a king sized cache of stuff, belonging to one of the EZ Way Inn’s former customers. Nellie jumps in and is with Jane when they look into the “haunted” house across from Edna’s restaurant. To Jane’s surprise, Nellie barges right into the house, and seems familiar with its odd and elderly occupant, Ada. To say much more at this point would be to give away some plot points the author took some pains to establish.

Like all of my very favorite mysteries, the secrets here are tied both to character, and even better, to family. The independent, strong minded Nellie has always been one of my favorite characters in the series, and in this novel we get to find out much more about her, as does Jane herself. The plot is full of tricky twists that turn out to have real resonance. It’s also full of Halloween atmosphere and nice prose. I especially loved the description, late in the book, of the local version of “Scary Night.” I can only say “bravo” to a strong and vital series entry.