THE BLOG
11/30/2016 09:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Fine Debut Mystery of a Truly "Cold" Case

The Dead of Winter - A Piper Blackwell Mystery
By Jean Rabe
Imajin Books| 2016 | 216 pages
Paperback $15.99
Ebook $4.99

The Times Square Ball has dropped in New York, viewed on televisions throughout Spencer County, Indiana. The well-wishing "Happy New Years!" are still reverberating throughout Spencer County. The sheriff receives a phone call. And fifty-eight minutes into her first, and possibly only, term as sheriff of Spencer County--it's murder.

This is the scene set by seasoned novelist Jean Rabe in her first murder mystery, The Dead of Winter. If there is any justice at all, not just in murder mysteries, but in the real world, it won't be her last.

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The new sheriff is Piper Blackwell, twenty-three years old, following in the footsteps, and trying to fill the shoes, of her father, Paul Blackwell, the retired four-term sheriff of Spencer County, who had encouraged her to run for his office. She has had no civil policing experience, although she was an MP in the military. She had loved the military, serving two tours in Iraq. She had "found herself" in the military. But she left the military and came home to Spencer County because her father was fighting the good fight against cancer. She was surprised to have won the election, especially given that she ran against the experienced deputy sheriff, Oren Rosenberg. She was unsure whether when people voted for P. Blackwell they were voting for her or for her father. Sheriff Paul Blackwell had been well-known and loved. Sheriff Piper Blackwell is unknown and not even much liked. But how hard could the job be? This is "sleepy Spencer County," where the number one offense is DUIs. It is more Mayberry RFD than Mosul, Iraq.

Rabe has defined The Dead of Winter as a "police procedural cozy," not only a contradiction in terms, but seemingly a conflict of sub-genres. And yet it is completely apt. She brings elements from both sub-genres to her novel in a--I won't call it a mash-up because that sounds much too messy--in a smooth melding, creating an integrated whole of mystery, thrills, personal conflicts, professional jealousies, hints of love to come, and petty, if vicious and violent, vengeance.

Rabe writes with the keen eye of observation, a fine-tuned ear for dialogue, and a most telling felicity of description. The Dead of Winter is not just a story and a mystery (although the mystery dissipates towards the end as suspense takes over), it is also a work of character studies as Rabe takes us into the minds of Piper Blackwell (her self-doubt is no less than the doubt of others), chief deputy Oren Rosenberg (did he lose the election because he's Jewish?), detective Randy Gerald (catch a murderer; advance a career), and the killer--the Christmas Card Killer. And she takes us into Spencer County, showing us the smallness of it, despite being four hundred square miles, and the closeness of it, with both positive and negative aspects of that emphasized. She portrays how Middle America, or, better said, the Middle Class, celebrates Christmas with yard displays and twinkling lights; beloved artificial trees and ceramic depictions of nostalgic Christmases of the past; snowmen (real ones, if the climate cooperates), reindeer pulling sleighs, and, of course, Santa Claus. There is even a town in the county named Santa Claus. And, of particular and gruesome importance to her story: cheerful Christmas mugs in the proper holiday colors and Christmas cards, many, many Christmas cards.

The murders--the Christmas Card Killer is a serial killer, as all good fictional killers are these days--are bizarrely witty while still being shocking. The investigation into those murders in sleepy Spencer County is incompetent at worst, improvisational at best, muddied by self-doubt, bitterness, and personal ambition, but ultimately--when footings become secure--successful.

Piper Blackwell's first week as sheriff of sleepy Spencer County is horrifically eventful. After the mystery is solved, the suspense is relieved, and justice is found, it is Piper's fervent wish that it remains the only horrifically eventful week during her term as sheriff. It is a wish that will not be granted if genie Jean Rabe has anything to say about it. I predict that readers of The Dead of Winter will heartily shout, "Open Sesame!"