Just down the road a piece from Miramichi on Route 126, you’ll pass through the lovely little Acadian town of Rogersville. Famous for their annual Bluegrass Festival, it is also the birthplace of Pierre C. Arseneault, whose most recent book is a bit of a departure from his past novels of “things that go bump in the night” type of story. Poplar Falls: The Death of Charlie Baker is a crime/mystery that’s a little bit different.
Charlie Baker is a popular man in town. Popular with the ladies, that is. Charlie is also a sex addict who is undergoing treatment in Poplar Falls’ Magnolia Wellness and Rehabilitation Centre. He lives in the town in a small bachelor apartment whilst getting treatment. However, he is found dead one day by his landlady, naked and tied to a bed (readily, so it would appear) with a pillow over his face. The cause of death is no mystery, but solving the homicide is the responsibility of Poplar Falls Police Detectives Franklin Dodge and Roxanne Tilley. Roxanne is a Poplar Falls native, so she is familiar with a lot of people in the small town which aids the pair in the investigation. Dodge has only been in town for two years and is still considered new in town. He wonders if this murder is somehow tied to the unsolved “Panty Bandit” case that recently terrorized the town until it mysterious stopped.
In Charlie’s apartment, they discover several video cameras, discretely hidden and attached to a laptop, which the killer presumably absconded with. Charlie far from being cured of his addiction was making amateur porn. Lots of it. However, Charlie’s killer did not know about another secret recording device, and the police are going over the files on it to see if the suspect was caught on tape. That’s all I’m going to say about the main story, just to avoid any spoilers. Suffice it to say that due to Charlie’s popularity, the list of potential suspects is long and there are hours of video to go over. There are jealous husbands and lovers to rule out, even a Hollywood star who was seeking treatment at the Magnolia Centre. Oh, and the “Naughty Knitters Club” is not to be left out of the picture either. There’s definitely something in the water in Poplar Falls, and it isn’t fluoride. More like Viagra.
If this sounds R or even X rated, it isn’t really, aside from strong language. In fact, it reads like a so-called “cozy mystery” for the most part: not too dark, no truly evil intent, and the characters are friendly sorts for the most part. However, they are very nosy and well-connected on social media.
As for the characters, some are quite humorous (such as the senior women in the Naughty Knitters Club) but others, particularly the detectives, Calvin, who is a police CSI member and Walter, a brain-damaged young man who lives in a dilapidated trailer and collects refundable cans and bottles for cash get the most intuitive and thoughtful character sketches from the pen of Mr. Arseneault. Here’s a scene from later in the book when Walter returns home after a long day of collecting recyclables.
He put the money in the box with the rest of the cash and didn’t bother putting the lid on the box. He was tired an didn’t know how long he could keep this up. Being a moron was exhausting, thought Walter. He had a sense of who he had become, but he couldn’t form a proper train of thought to figure all this out. He knew he needed to wash his clothes and try and wash himself, but that would have to wait until the morning. If he remembered by then. And washing to Walter was going to consist of rinsing out his clothes and standing under a cold shower for a few minutes. No soap would be used on either the clothes or himself, but he would be satisfied with his efforts. These thoughts crossed his mind but were fleeting as he climbed onto his bed, fully clothed and dragged a large, heavy, dirty blanket on top of himself.
Perhaps a Poplar Falls sequel may be in the back of the author’s mind? One can only hope so, for Poplar Falls is quite the place, and The Death of Charlie Baker is quite the introduction to it. I’m sure there are many more stories to be located in Poplar Falls. You may even find yourself looking at your neighbours a little differently after reading this quirky, light-hearted crime fiction novel.
“Arseneault is a clever storyteller who fills his tale with subplots that diverge and frequently intersect as his narrative unwinds. Characters are drawn broadly. […] This is a relatively lighthearted take on some dark goings-on. As is often the case in this genre, don’t be surprised if you think you’ve put the mystery to bed only to find there are more shoes under it than you realized.” — The US Review of Books
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