Charlaine Harris: Shakespeare’s Landlord

Somewhere in the interim I read Charlaine Harris’s Shakespeare’s Landlord , the first book in the Lily Bard series. Amazon.com’s synopsis – from Publisher’s Weekly! – made me snort; I thought PW was highly regarded, with good reason? I’m not impressed: “While on a late-night job” – no, she wasn’t; Lily sees “a furtive figure placing large plastic garbage bags in the local park” – not really, no. “Realizing, however, that her fingerprints on the body of the dead man might make her a suspect” – I don’t think so, but I’ll double check. The facts are, in fact, these: Lily Bard, living in the small Arkansas town of Shakespeare, is an insomniac, and on this night when she can’t sleep she goes for a walk. It’s not as astoundingly stupid as it would be for most women, this walking about the town in the wee hours: Lily has been studying martial arts for some time, and she’s very, very good – at both self-defense and wandering unnoticed. And she’s highly motivated. Heading home from her ramble, she sees a person in a raincoat going along with a garbage trolley – *her* trolley – and knows something’s up; she follows, lurks while the figure disappears into the little park and returns with the empty trolley, and then goes in to see what was dumped. Who, that is: inside the garbage bags is Lily’s landlord.

She wants nothing to do with it, but now she’s handled the garbage bags – which she disposes of – and is afraid there might be evidence on the trolley, and yes, perhaps she was afraid of having left trace or fingerprints on the body – oh, that’s right: her main concern wasn’t so much self-preservation, but that kids would find the corpse in the morning. After a debate, she makes an anonymous call to the police chief about the location of her landlord.

There are a lot of mysteries out there in which the protagonist, an ordinary(ish) person, decides she has to investigate a murder in order to clear her own name; this one was unique. Yes, Lily is worried that she may be dragged into the investigation – but her primary reason for trying to make this all go away as quickly as possible is that she has had very good reason to start fresh, very good reason to do everything possible to make her past go away, and a murder investigation on her literal doorstep will jeapordize the privacy she needs.

Although she had an excellent college education and was, Before, on a business fast track, she now does full-time what she once did for extra money: she cleans. It’s a satisfying job, with a beginning and middle and end and visible results when it’s complete, and the work is solitary, under the radar. But it also puts her in contact with a good-sized segment of the town population, her clients, all of whom are almost as interested in questioning her about the murder of her landlord as she is in finding out what they can tell her.

As she tries to work this disruption into her well-regulated reconstructed life, it’s as though the one rock dropped into her pond sends ripples out that change everything. The police chief, a nodding-terms neighbor, becomes a figure in her life – exactly what kind of figure is yet to be seen. Her past becomes, if not common knowledge, known to some – including someone who tries to disable her by using it to leave her horrid messages. Lily’s karate instructor, newly separated from his wife, becomes a bigger part of her life – much bigger. The murder investigation knocks everything askew, alters just about everything in her purposely stagnant life – and as the book ends it looks like this, one of her greatest fears, just might turn out to be for the good.

Normally something like the whole Shakespeare/Bard thing would cause traumatic eye-rolling, but this had an excellent explanation: Lily needed a new place to live, opened up a map, and figured Shakespeare was a logical place for her – based on nothing other than the consonance of names. (Only thing is … there may be a flaw of reasoning here, which isn’t so very bad as it can be attributed to the character rather than the author: Lily was trying to leave her past behind, but does not change her name, and goes to a place where her name is more memorable than in other places … )

I like Lily. I don’t love her, or any of the other characters; the reserve she maintains with everyone around her carries over to the reader in the first-person narrative. But despite the horrors of her past the book never becomes a pity party; she has dealt with it all in every way she knew how, and now the best way she can find to cope is to lock it away. She has a personality, and a sense of humor, and she’s a fascinating character to spend some time with; and I like and believe the people around her (though some of her clients suffer from the same PITA From Hell Syndrome that so many of Goldy’s clients have in the Diane Mott Davidson novels I’ve been reading – the seemingly pver-the-top bitchiness or thoughtlessness which I, unfortunately, know is not impossible in a customer. I look forward to the rest of the series, and finding out where all the pieces will fit into her adjusted life.

I like Charlaine Harris. I still haven’t gotten to the True Blood series, but I own several, and I’m looking forward to them – it’s in queue.

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