Ok, before you start thinking, ‘oh no, another obscure title from a small press no one’s ever heard of,” let me give you some quotes:
“When it is all over, the situations and characters linger in the mind, which means that The Last Laugh is the work of a writer with real imagination.” Newgate Callendar, New York Times.
“along with his keen appreciation of the outdoors, Riggs’ unsentimental insights into his small-town neighbors make this a stand-out series,” Marilyn Stasio Mystery Alley (She later took on the mystery section of the Sunday New York Times as reviewer
“Garth Ryland is an exemplary series hero, proving more interesting in each appearance . . . Ryland has a many threaded plot to unwind (The Glory Hound); that he does so while remaining the tale’s main attraction measures Riggs’ skill as a writer as well as storyteller.” Publisher’s Weekly
The praise was for his entire series up until this book, and it’s well deserved. I came across Garth Ryland at some point before working at the bookstores. When in the position of being able to support my favorite authors, John R. Riggs was one of the first I thought of. His work is deceptively simple. Easy short prose, nothing fancy, no grandiose wanderings, simple story telling with compelling characters, solid settings, and a protagonist that is more complicated than his outer appearance would suggest.
Garth Ryland returned to his hometown of Okalla, Wisconsin over six years ago, inheriting his grandmother’s farm and dilapidated moody car, Jessie. Yep, a car with a homespun name. Okalla should reek of homespunness, and in any other writer’s hands it would, but Riggs manages to create a world of solid strong characters and a town that can be picturesque, with pond scum just below street level.
As sole reporter and printer and floor washer of the local newspaper, Gath gets by. As it so often is, in Wisconsin, snow is falling, ice has formed and everything and one are cold, cold cold, Nearing Christmas, Garth decides to level a tree on his property, taking his axe out into the wintry bluster, He sees very small footprints in the snow—unusual to be sure, he follows them into his barn where he discovers a waif like woman with what others would call ‘walking dead eyes.’ She never speaks, despite Garth’s attempt to calm her fears by putting his axe down. He moves to leave, she rushes forward grabbing the axe and holding it as Garth thinks “she knows how to use it.”
As she does nothing more, he goes back to the farmhouse to make up a picnic basket of his housekeeper Ruth’s fine cooking and returns to the barn, only to find it deserted.
The mystery surrounding this sad girl and her past becomes the essential issue of the book. Two men in town may have loved the mysterious woman. She may be Annie Lawson, who with her abusive husband, had disappeared seven years ago. And someone has much ill will toward her.
This is not a puzzler with locked rooms, nor it is a thriller, like the hunt for a serial killer, and it’s not a psychological study. It’s a simple clear compelling tale, rich with character and depth of feeling, small town style. And sometimes these are the best kind of mysteries to read.