Aaron Paul Lazar is an all-American writer of popular mysteries. He sometimes calls them country mysteries, and this goes some way towards describing them. Because I come from Britain and have many connections with Europe, I might wish to call them “American country mysteries.” Certainly they are a far cry from the formulaic English country-house mysteries, and they do not in the least resemble the many English murder mysteries set (with notable lack of verisimilitude) in the charming little villages of the South of England. Lazar’s country mysteries are unique, at least in the context of my own reading. And they are very American. Why do I say that? Because I cannot imagine finding anywhere but in the USA Lazar’s particular blend of romance, family affection, church-going warmth, appetizing home cooking, enthusiastic gardening, breath-stopping suspense, villainous behavior with murderous intent, all put together with intelligence, good humor, story-telling skill and a bubbling-over of imagery, more than a touch of naïve and lovable optimism and an overpowering sense that although particularly nasty and violent men keep cropping up, East Goodland (well-named) in the Genesee Valley in upstate New York is still the best of all possible worlds.
Lazar is a prolific writer, and I am going to confine my discussion here to the first five of his Gus LeGarde mysteries. These are the novels that set him on the road to becoming a writer of mystery novels, and while he may have refined his writing skills in his later novels, these are the novels that drew me into his world, and I would like work out why, what is their attraction? Why do I keep coming back to see what is going on in East Goodland?
In order of their appearance they are:
Tremolo: Cry of the Loon, published by Twilight Times Books in 2007
Mazurka, published by Paladin Timeless Books (a Twilight Times Imprint) in 2009
FireSong, published by Paladin Timeless Books (a Twilight Times Imprint) in 2011
All these novels are also available on Kindle and in numerous other e-reader formats, and since Aaron has agreed to be interviewed on this blog, I will be asking him more about the ways in which he wrote and published these novels, but today I want to concentrate on some aspects of the novels themselves.
The hero of this series of novels is Gus LeGarde—not a detective, not a policeman, but a professor. Not by any means a stereotypical professor. He is a professor of music in a local upstate New York college but we see a lot more of him in his house, his garden, his kitchen, his church, than in his college. These are no typical college mysteries with a cast of faculty members as suspects. They are mysteries in which Gus himself is at the center, often not so much in a detecting role as in the role of potential victim of a dastardly character or characters who pursue him and his loved ones, often in hair-raising chases. Professor he may be, but he is an outdoors type, who skis, rides horses, runs, swims and when necessary packs a mighty punch. He himself is the recipient of so many blows to the head that one would fear for his sanity if he did not have an amazing ability to get back on his feet and fight another day.
And yet Gus is not a violent man. On the contrary, he is a loving, sensitive and of course musical soul who tends to get involved in crime only because he is concerned about his fellow men, and particularly about children, women—and animals too. It is this concern and the compulsion to step in and help those in trouble that usually makes him, and often his wife, the direct target of various villains’ wrath.
When we first meet him in Double Forté, he is a widower, a middle-aged grandfather, who has already known tragedy in his personal life through the illness and death of his beloved wife, Elsbeth. The circumstances of her death four years previously are gradually revealed in this first novel. He often thinks of her and so she makes frequent appearances in this and the other novels. So does her twin brother, Siegfried, who is very much alive, and Gus’s best friend since they were all children together. Siegfried is one of the most appealing characters in a series full of appealing characters. He is a strong and muscular man, six-feet-eight tall with blue eyes and a blond pony tail who suffered brain damage in a childhood boating accident, and after years of therapy won back little of his childhood brilliance but developed into the “gentle giant” of the novels “without whom the family would be lost” (Double Forté,35).
Gus, the first person narrator of all these novels, is a man whose past is by no means banished from his present, and his thoughts often linger on events of his personal past, but at the same time he has a great lust for his present life, not only his romantic attachment, beginning in Double Forté, to a lovely young woman, Camille, nine years younger than he is, who continues to be a major player in all five of the novels. This is a tender physical relationship and Lazar describes its development right up to the honeymoon in Mazurka, and beyond. His lust for life is also wonderfully manifested in his appetite for good food—grown and cooked largely by himself. He prepares enormous meals for his big family—his daughter and her family live with him—and often for friends as well. We see and smell and almost taste the wonderful fresh food at his table. (I write here as one who lives in New York City and have to make do with the Green Market at the weekend when farmers from upstate bring in their produce for us city-dwellers.) Let your mind run on this “simple” Sunday dinner for the whole clan:
The aroma of roasted chicken filled the kitchen. . . . I added four generous shakes of cinnamon to the apple sauce. I’d peeled and cooked several dozen twenty-ounce apples from Oscar’s tree in his backyard. . . . I lifted the collard greens from the stove and poured them into a strainer . . . last night’s sudden early frost had turned their slightly bitter flavor into a sweet, musky taste . . .I picked up a three-pronged fork and and poked the potatoes boiling in the large stockpot. I’d dug them from the cold soil that morning . . . (FireSong,215f.)
Gus often does some quite fancy cooking, but what pervades the novel for me, and plays a large part in giving them their healthy, homespun atmosphere, one might say, aroma, is the cooking of food straight from the soil. Musician as he is, a pianist who loves to play Chopin, Gus is close to the earth.
If you get caught up in his family in the first two novels, you will be pleased to discover that the third novel, Tremolo, Cry of the Loon, returns entirely to the childhood of Gus and the twins, Elsbeth and Siegfried, new immigrants from Germany. The scene is set in a summer back in the sixties when the three children, ten and eleven years old, find themselves caught up in a series of adventures, launched in typical LeGarde manner by their desire to help a young girl whom they see fleeing through the woods pursued by an ugly, angry, predatory man, one of Lazar’s most villainous characters. Here they are not in East Goodland but in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine in a lakeside holiday camp run by Gus’s grandparents. The world of this summer camp is beautifully conjured up through the eyes of the children, in the background not only the cry of the loon, a bird of the region, but various other sounds and signs of the times, from the songs of the Beatles to the movie, “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” to the assassination of Kennedy and the crusades of Martin Luther King. I enjoyed this excursion into Gus’s past, since I already knew the middle-aged Gus, but I think it might well stand alone and be successful as one of those cross-over books that can appeal to children and adults.
Lazar is obviously a man who loves children, and he depicts them with ease and without self-consciousness or artifice. Gus’s little grandson, Johnny, plays an important role in this series. Seeing him grow through four novels from a two-year-old, we fear for him when he is in danger as for a child we know. A member of Gus’s family, he is bound to be danger quite often! A mystery series that so intimately involves a whole family cannot but have a disproportionate number of disasters befalling its members, and in this series one might complain that there are a few too many skeletons in the closet, too many people who have committed crimes or been subjected to criminal behavior. And yet the overwhelming impression made by these five novels is a happy one, one reviewer has said they are “feel-good” novels. If you look through the reviews you will be struck by the frequent occurrence of such concepts as “comfortable,” “soothing,” “endearing,” “great book for a quiet afternoon.” At the same time, reviewers also talk about them as “page-turners,” “electrifying story lines,” even “a chilling thriller.” How does Lazar manage this? One reviewer says, “The characters are just plain nice,” and this does sum up most members of the LeGarde family and their friends. I like them too and would happily sit at their table and eat their splendid food. But these are not readable family romances. What changes them into something else is the intrusion of people who are just plain nasty into this nice world. Not too many characters in a Lazar novel straddle the nice-nasty hurdle. They are generally one thing or the other.
The nastiest characters of all crop up in Mazurka, the honeymoon novel that does not take place at all in verdant East Goodland, but starts in turbulent weather in a plane across the Atlantic, where Gus and his bride, Camille, are on their bumpy way to Paris, taking Siegfried with them to visit long-lost relatives in Germany. Lazar’s descriptive powers are not confined to upstate New York. He does a fine job of conjuring up Paris, seen through the eyes of excited American tourists on their first visit to the city on the Seine, and later on we have an equally happy picture of the Inner City of Vienna. I do not intend to destroy the suspense of the plot. Suffice to say that the nastiest characters in all of the five novels are the bunch of rabid Nazi youths in Mazurka with whom Gus already tangles on the plane and who subsequently pursue Siegfried, whose mother was Jewish, and through him, Gus and Camille, through a series of hair-raising adventures, beginning with an astounding chase sequence in the catacombs of Paris and ending in an unspecified location in Germany or Austria where unspeakable events occur. I did wonder here whether the later incidents were not too “over the top” in presenting a very frightening picture of right wing activity in Europe today. Lazar did however make it clear that some of the ringleaders in all this were actually American Nazis, thus presenting it all as a global phenomenon rather than something designed to discourage Americans from touring Germany!
In fact the German language has a constant presence in the Lazar novels through Siegfried who in the disabling accident in his youth lost the English language for a while and reverted to his native German, which he has never completely managed to remove from his speech. Fragments of his speech are therefore often German, a device that is more effective than simply saying he has a German accent.
Lazar takes plenty of time describing his characters, not only Gus’s family but all the other characters, from the two very decent policemen who are his friends and helpers, to the ugly thugs who, by necessity, appear in his novels. Lazar is never in a hurry. People looking for purely action novels must look elsewhere. He pauses constantly to describe how the characters look, what they are wearing, what they are thinking, whether it has anything to do with the plot or not. He takes time to describe the sound of bullfrogs, the way fireflies look when Gus chases them with his grandson; one whole scene centers on shelling peas; he takes us through the making of a whole Thanksgiving Dinner; he even gives us two full sermons preached by the minister of his church (FireSong). Typical of his narration, he will pause right in the middle of an action to say, for example:
I was momentarily distracted by a small white-tailed rabbit who hopped out of the bush to my right. He sat up and twitched his whiskers then went down on all fours about ten feet from us, freezing in the open grass in a misguided attempt at camouflage (FireSong, 143).
And yet with all this delight in leisurely narration, Lazar has the ability suddenly to quicken the pace and create the kind of suspense that has you sitting on the edge of your seat, turning the pages rapidly as someone, usually Gus, races against time and all the odds to escape some dire force, be it pursuing villains, forest fires, rising waters – sometimes all of the above in one sequence. I have twice gone past my subway stop in NYC, caught up in such a sequence. This is a very particular narrative ability, and Lazar has it. He also has the ability convincingly to describe complex physical feats, climbing up or down dangerous slopes, for example or struggling through mazes of underground tunnels in such a way that the reader is following step by dangerous step.
There are usually subplots in these novels that, depending on how you view them add richness to the central mystery, or upend the balance of it, such as the mysterious guest in Tremolo, the amazing family connection with a well-known composer in Mazurka, the hidden room on the Underground Railroad in FireSong. Of these five novels, the one that most resembles a traditional murder mystery is Upstaged, precisely because it has no actual sub-plot, though it is, like the others, framed in the ongoing story of developing relationships within the LeGarde family. It is the most tightly plotted of the five novels, centering on a high school production of a musical written by Gus and directed by Camille. Strange accidents in rehearsals quickly turn out to be signs that someone is plotting against Camille, people are hurt, and an actual murder occurs. The cast of the play and those concerned in the production are the prime suspects, and Gus, along with his friends in the police force, gradually close in on the murderer, a particularly nasty (American) specimen though I for one did not recognize him as the culprit until close to the end.
One reviewer has described Double Forté as “a nice cozy mystery,” but I have hesitated myself to describe these mysteries as “cozy.” Why? They certainly do not contain gratuitous violence or sex. They deal much more in romance rather than in horror, even though there are plenty of fisticuffs and chases. But another word, rather than cozy comes to my mind. The young boy, Gus, in Tremolo is taken to see “To Kill a Mocking Bird” by his liberal parents, who want him to understand something about America, and he is shocked at the racism and cruelty he sees in it. His parents try to explain to him the crimes of racism and rape. The boy narrator says, “I was quiet all the way home thinking about Tom Robinson and his distraught family. I contemplated the acts of which some men were capable.” And this, one feels, is what Lazar is always doing. He can never quite believe that people can be as vile as he has to make them in order to make his mysteries work as mysteries. Perhaps these novels are, when all’s said and done, contemplative American country mysteries. This is not a word to set the mystery market on fire, but in my book it is high praise, whatever the market.
Next week, I hope to ask Aaron Paul Lazar how he sees his mysteries himself.