[Parts of this article first published as Book Review: Healey’s Cave by Aaron Paul Lazar and Book Review: Terror Comes Knocking by Aaron Paul Lazar on Blogcritics.]
Aaron Paul Lazar is a writer of popular country mysteries. He is a master at conjuring up warm family life in his corner of the world—rural upstate New York—and disrupting his happy families with murder and mayhem. He has himself described his novels as “relatively wholesome mysteries that skirt around the gruesome details of murder.” I agree with that assessment, although, having read many kinds of mysteries since I started really examining the genre in this blog, I would say that “relatively wholesome” is an understatement. Very wholesome is nearer the mark.
One of his main strengths as a mystery writer is in creating a realistic context, complete with sounds and smells of countryside and garden as well sounds and smells of cooking garden produce. I always come away from reading Aaron feeling hungry for good fresh food and nostalgic for warm family life. Within his kind of wholesome setting however he is also a master of building suspense, especially in extended chase scenes in which the good guys are either being pursued through a variety of hair-raising circumstances or are themselves in hot pursuit of the bad guys. One is rarely in doubt in a Lazar novel as to who are the good and who are the bad guys. These highly suspenseful scenes are so well narrated that one turns the pages very fast and completely suspends disbelief while the down-to-earth characters perform amazing feats of strength and courage.
A different kind of suspension of disbelief is required in his latest series of novels, the Sam Moore series. Lazar leaves the terra firma of realistic story-telling and risks entry into the “paranormal” genre. The central character of this series, Sam Moore, a newly retired family doctor, is in many ways a typical Lazar character in that he is a kind, loving man who adores and cares for his wife, Rachel, a sufferer from multiple sclerosis, a strong character in her own right. He grows food and, with his wife, cooks it for the whole family. Sam Moore, like Gus Legarde of the earlier series, is a man with children and grandchildren, and scenes in which Grandpa interacts with the children, whether they advance the plot or not, are important in creating the atmosphere of the series. But–enter the paranormal—in the first novel of the series, Healey’s Cave, Sam finds a green marble in his garden which turns out to have magical properties. This, I will freely admit, would be enough to turn me off the novel if I did not already have a soft spot for Lazar’s good guys and the life they lead.
I have never been remotely interested in the paranormal genre per se, but I thought I should take a look at it in this blog, if only for the sake of completeness, and I was curious about how a writer with his feet pretty firmly on the ground of the real world would deal with it. In Healey’s Cave, somewhat to my surprise, I found that I was able quite soon to accept without smirking the notion that Sam Moore could be whisked into the past when the mysterious green marble glowed. The plot centers on the unexplained disappearance fifty years previously of Sam’s beloved kid brother, Billy, and throughout the novel, Sam’s magical trances take him back into episodes of his childhood, which, piece by piece, open up the mystery of what happened to his brother. Yes, the development of the plot relies on the paranormal, but it does so in effect through a series of flashbacks into the childhood of Sam himself, and also of his friends, several of whom figure in the present and the past. Thus in the course of discovering who was responsible for Billy’s disappearance, we get to know three of the prime suspects, Sam’s best friends, both as children and as adults. This turns out to be a clever plot device.
After my initial, “oh, come on “ reaction, I could accept that when the marble glowed, Billy was trying to guide Sam to the truth of what had happened. I could do this, in part, because the scenes of childhood conjured up by magic were not in themselves “supernatural,” but were quite realistic representations of events that happened when the sixty-year-old men were only boys. Lazar is good at the depiction of childhood and young boyhood. He has written several novels in the Gus LeGarde series which are set entirely in the childhood of his main characters (e.g. Tremolo), so reading Lazar one is quite used to being whisked into the past, not by magic, but by the narrative skill of the writer. The magic marble in Healey’s Cave does move the solution of the mystery forward, but it might be said to work the way a psychiatrist (or a novelist) might work on opening up a person’s memory of the distant past.
In Terror Comes Knocking, the second novel in the series, I found it harder at first to accept that Billy, through the magic marble, could now assist Sam in solving a new mystery, one that plays almost exclusively in the narrative present, a present that includes some of the main news topics of our time, such as terrorism and the Iraq War. The mystery in this novel centers on another disappearance, the disappearance of Sam’s grown-up daughter, and it took a more difficult suspension of disbelief to accept that Billy, child of the past, was showing Sam actual visions of where she was now, in the present time-frame of the novel. Sam’s son has been posted to Iraq, and in one scene, Billy even takes Sam there. It turns out, however, that the long-gone past of Sam’s childhood, in which Billy was a living participant, does, through one of the characters, play a part in the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Sam’s daughter. This character as a boy, and now an older man, binds the two time-frames of the plot together – that of the long-dead Billy and that of the retired doctor Sam. The device of Billy’s other-worldly guidance goes then some way toward satisfying the rational demands of the mind that is not too convinced by the purely paranormal.
But perhaps I am doing my own rationalizing. Again, as in all Lazar’s novels , in Terror Comes Knocking, the relationships between the characters are to me paramount. The characters are, and I say this without any big-city irony, very decent Americans. The loving relationship of Sam and his wife, the heart-breakingly touching way in which they both deal with her illness, their refreshing tolerance in coping with the love-relationships of their children, and their attempts to be fair-minded in the face of people very different from themselves who may or may not be involved in terrorism—all these things add up to the Lazar appeal. The “terror” of the title refers not to the abstract form of terror that may be equated with “horror” but to the quite concrete threat of destruction by terrorists. This is indeed the mainspring of the central adventure of the plot, and justifies the Terror Comes Knocking title, but I prefer nonetheless the title One Potato, Blue Potato which, we are told in the introduction, was the original title of the novel. I like it because it refers, as you will discover if you read the novel, to the parents’ loving acceptance of their children, surely the mainspring of the family dynamics in the novel.
In an interview with Mr. Lazar on this blog, he said that he included family scenes and vignettes in his novels, partly as a device of “tension and release,” but also because he wanted his readers “to love and care for his characters.” Perhaps he does not have to answer the question of whether his primary concern as a novelist is the depiction of family relationships or the telling of a cracking good adventure story. Perhaps he is faced with this decision only when he has to create a title for his book. There is plenty of excitement in Terror Comes Knocking, and certainly a publisher might want to emphasize this.
The novel culminates in a classic action scene in which Sam Moore, to save the local population, and even the President, from terrorists, makes a mad dash into the town on, yes, a golden and white horse, a palomino no less (cf. Trigger, Roy Rogers’s horse!). This is a great scene, not paranormal, just a lot larger than life, in other words, pure Lazar, and to be taken at face value If you are, as I invariably am, completely caught up in the desire to see the hero overcome impossible odds and save the day.
Thus does Aaron Paul Lazar, writer of good-humored country mysteries, bring off a paranormal novel so that even an old dyed-in-the-wool skeptic like me is only too willing to suspend disbelief.
I wonder what he will tackle next?