May 01, 2012
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Murder Mystery in Wine Country

Review by Starla Pointer

“A Murder of Crows” takes us into the world of Cade Blackstone, a self-deprecating private dick with an eye for leggy ladies and a nose for clues.

He hasn’t had a lot of cases in the year since he hung out his shingle in Carlton, “a charming little wine burg several miles outside of Forest Grove” and, in this novel, a larger and more gossipy version of the real town. 

But hasn’t needed a lot of cases, either, since he’s independently wealthy. Yet he’s eager to do a good job when a local blue-hair who runs a designer doorstop shop stumbles into his office on one of the hottest days of the year. 

Her granddaughter is missing, she tells him with a concern which, unbeknownst to the detective, quickly expires.

So off Cade races to locate Mallory, a 14-year-old with Goth makeup and a congenital chip on her shoulder. Along the way, he stumbles onto the scene of a murder — turns out the victim is Mallory’s would-be stepfather — and deals with his reporter girlfriend, a macaw named Irene Adler, a bumbling deputy, the staff of a Christian camp, pot growers with automatic weapons, book-loving grandmas, a slew of Mallory’s peers, another private investigator who once shared his bed and, oh yes, a murder of crows.

It’s a lot of ground to cover, both for Cade and his inventor, Portland writer Kate Ayers. But both do a pretty good job covering all the bases. 

However, simplification would have made this novel stronger. Marijuana adds nothing interesting to the plot, for instance — not even as a red herring.

The Carlton setting will intrigue readers familiar with the town and those who’ve visited the area’s many wineries. Some of the business names are real, such as Cuneo, Elk Cove and the Winemaker’s Studio. Others are entirely fictional, like the Grapevine Inn, where Cade downs an order of eggs Benedict shortly before driving to his house for a tuna sandwich (clearly, this is a fellow who indulges all his appetites).

Cade goes to many real places, too. He heads to Hagg Lake along Highway 47 in his yellow Lamborghini to kayak with his pup, Jiggs, “a ball of furry blond wrinkles with a scowling face that says, ‘Don’t even think of petting me unless I ask you to.’”

It’s fun to imagine the many fictional sites, such as the little red convenience store at the junction. But locals will notice Cade takes Highway 240 on his way to the McMinnville hospital, a geographic incongruity. It won’t matter to far-off readers, of course, but why not just write the right route?

Other details call for major suspension of disbelief, as well. How can a recently released inmate afford a $100-a-plate winemakers’ dinner? And is Cade’s big house in Carlton or in the countryside? Its location seems to shift from chapter to chapter.

Overall, “A Murder of Crows” is not a bad read. Cade charms his way into the reader’s heart by being honest about his flaws and genuinely caring about the people he meets along the way. Besides, who could resist a guy with a wrinkly dog? 

Starla Pointer is a reporter for the News-Register in McMinnville.