I have finished the seventeenth book for the book challenge. I read Absinthe of Malice by Pat Browning, a Penny MacKenzie mystery.
Penny MacKenzie is a reporter for the Pearl Outrider in Pearl, California, a small town in rural northern agrarian California. She has lived in Pearl all her life except for a brief encounter with a religious group when she was a teenager and when she went to college. She lives with her widowed mother and a cat named Homer in Pearl and is complacent with life but wishing that something more exciting would happen.
She and fellow reporter Maxie Harper have staked out a cotton field in Pearl to find out what is going on in Pearl. There has been some illegal activity recently among youth and they are spying on the boys. Penny reports on lifestyle; Maxie does investigative reporting. They have heard that these boys are doing devil worship. The boys begin to dig in the field. Suddenly, the boys run away. Maxie and Penny go to check out what they ran away from. They have uncovered a skeletal foot! And gold nuggets! In the middle of California! They realize they have to report this to the police, but decide to talk it over first and how they are going to cover this story before they actually go to Barney Press and the Pearl Police Department.
The town Dinner In The Round is to be held by the Swanns, Layton Swann being the mayor of the town and his wife Merrily the hostess-in-chief. The event is to held in the old hotel as well as the café, (hence “in the round”) with food provided by the Swanns in celebration of the restoration work done to the old hotel by Layton Swann. Maxie used to date Layton Swann in high school, but that was long ago.
Watt Collins, an old flame of Penny’s, has shown up in town as well. He has come back to look around and perhaps settle down here. He seems interested in Penny and what she is doing as he visits the newspaper offices. Penny remembers him fondly but doesn’t want to get her hopes up too much.
Maxie and Penny go to The Dinner In The Round after turning in their bone fragments to the police, which have been found in Layton Swann’s cotton field. Layton is concerned about the publicity. Penny and Maxie become separated at the dinner and Penny goes looking for Maxie. She finally finds Maxie–in the Silo of the café, dead.
It appears that Maxie has had an allergic reaction to the Oysters Merrily and has died from asphyxiation, but further tests are needed. Penny believes she has been murdered because of the bones they discovered in the cotton field. She sets out to prove that she is right and who killed Maxie (Merrily or Layton, she believes) and why. But before she can do that, another death of another woman occurs, another mysterious death and Penny must factor that into the equation.
This was an interesting book. It has an extremely complicated plot, with themes reaching back many decades into the Klondike Gold Rush and back to high school years for Penny. Going back and forth from one era to another, Browning crafts a story that holds the reader’s interest and builds suspense even as you figure out with Penny the clues to the murderer of this complicated story.