Author: Carolyn J. Rose

Publisher: Five Star Publishing

ISBN: 978-1-59414-884-2

Click Here To Purchase Hemlock Lake (Five Star Mystery Series)

There are fiction genres that challenge me as a writer. Romance, YA, and mystery are really troublesome. For the first two, I believe it is indispensable that the author put himself in the mind frame of the reader. The first readers have graduated from fairy tales like “Cinderella” to more adult fantasies about lust and love. While those elements can be found in other genres, they are the quintessential elements of the romance genre. The second readers, often young and impatient in this computer game world of instant gratification, are looking for adventure and some magic (and perhaps lust and love) at a level they can relate to, not too profound and highly entertaining.

So far I have written thrillers set in the future—sci-fi or techno-thrillers, if you will. The difference between a thriller and a mystery is easy: In a thriller you know who did it, is doing it, or will do it, and most of the time what “it” is (or you think you know all this—authors are prone to throw in some “twists” in their plots). In the mystery you have no idea who did it, or is doing it, or will do it—the author dribbles out the clues along the way and the reader gets his kicks by sleuthing out the guilty party or parties. The thriller tends to have more action; the mystery tends to be more cerebral.

I can’t write mysteries. Or maybe I should say I haven’t tried yet. It’s a very competitive genre (what genre isn’t?) and I’m too much in a hurry to get the reader on my bandwagon so he can enjoy the thrills of the ride as the story unfolds. It’s also possible that the sci-fi addict in me gets in the way, but Asimov could write mysteries, even sci-fi mysteries (The Naked Sun was probably the best). So I enjoy a good mystery and admire the craftsmanship. Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie were masters in their time, while P. D. James is the current star (the movie made from her The Children of Men was much better than the novella, though, which shows that others have problems mixing sci-fi and mystery—Asimov may be the exception).

Rose’s new novel is a mystery novel. It has all the elements. It is written in the first person, which makes it easy for the author to dribble out the clues, since the reader discovers them along with the person doing the story telling (in this case, the main character). Although my first guess at who the culprit is turned out to be correct (and I didn’t cheat—I do my New York Times crossword puzzle the day it comes out), there is no dearth of suspects as we read along. The number of suspects is surprising.

We are talking about a small community of people living around Hemlock Lake in the Catskill Mountains. We are in Ashokan County. While Rose tells us up front that this is fiction and no such place exists, the theme song of Ken Burns’ Civil War series was called “Ashokan Farewell” (it’s a beautiful yet simple song in the key of D Major that even I can play on the piano). It turns out that Ashokan was the name of a Catskill village now covered by the Ashokan Reservoir. That beautiful place, which provides water to New York City, inspired Jay Ungar to write the song long before the PBS series. It’s the only modern song used in the series but it sounds old.

By the way, Hemlock Lake is one of the Finger Lakes, which is not exactly in the Catskills, but very close. And there is a Hemlock Township in Pennsylvania. I can’t remember if it’s in the Poconos; if it is, the Poconos are really an extension of the Catskills.

I write about all this geography because Rose grew up in the Catskills. The fictional geography around Hemlock Lake is almost another character in her novel. It seems to me to be an important player in all the lives of the locals. The desire to leave it unspoiled is the motivation for all the nefarious goings-on at the lakeside developer’s site.

Development around pristine lakes is not new in the Northeast. All those baby boomers are going to retire somewhere. Those in the Northeast are often accustomed to getaways to the northern forests and lakes, so it is logical that some will retire there. Arizona and Florida are no longer the retirement meccas they once were. The trouble that Seattle-based Plum Creek Real Estate Investment had at Moosehead Lake in Maine is a real-life precedent to the action in the novel. I suppose there are many others.

Enough about geographical setting. On the surface Rose’s story is simple: Developers are moving into Hemlock Lake and somebody is trying to stop them. Who is it? One or more of the local residents? (Like I said, there’s a list of suspects.) Eco-terrorists? One or more of the developer’s people? The developer is not a nice guy, for example, and some of his workers are not friendly either. Sheriff’s deputy Sgt. Dan Stone is sent from the main office to figure it all out. To make it more interesting, he’s a local that left and has a devil of a time getting integrated back into the Hemlock Lake community.

I like the title. Hemlock suggests both murder and woods. The first comes from the plant Conium, supposedly used to execute Socrates and employed many times by mystery writers’ villains. The woods come from the tree Tsuga, not uncommon in the Northeast. Woods can be very mysterious—in the shadows of the tree canopy during the day and as the owl hoots at night. Titles are important for books. Authors should put some thought into them. Rose’s immediately tells me I’ve got a mystery or a thriller—it turns out to be the former.

But is Hemlock Lake a mystery? It has all the trappings of a good mystery and if you read it that way, you’ll be entertained. There’s even a nice little twist at the end which exonerates one of the suspects on Rose’s list. I found this to be one of the weak points of the story, a kind of deus ex machina (or should I say deus ex homo?—read the book), but you may not. It wasn’t tremendously important to the plot, so I’m inclined to forgive her. Still, I would have left it out.

What I really appreciated about this novel was the description of the emotional purgatory in which Dan Stone is living. He’s the one telling the story and the reader really gets inside his head. He has lost his wife and brother and his father is in a nursing home after suffering a stroke. He’s not exactly in emotional hell because his sanity is salvageable: A newcomer to Hemlock Lake, Camille Chancellor, is able to raise him out of purgatory. This Camille has to choose between Dan and the desire to move on with her life, not exactly the choice Greta Garbo had to make in the 1937 movie Camille (based on Dumas Junior’s 1852 novel and play), but maybe I’m reading too much into the name. (It’s a complicated name in comparison to most of the others in the novel, so I do think it’s significant.) This is the stuff of romance novels, I suppose, but I think the reader will find the Dan and Camille relationship more profound than any they’ll find in a romance novel. This is gut-wrenching psychological torment layered on thick above the trappings of mystery and romance. It shows that the author understands human nature.

I usually don’t read books like this for entertainment or otherwise. Readers may recall that I reviewed The Big Grabowski that Rose wrote with her husband, Michael Nettleton. That book was a tongue-in-cheek mystery. Hemlock Lake is a mystery that is more than a mystery. I was surprised. In spite of my misgivings, I couldn’t put it down. Carolyn J. Rose is a master of her craft.

I recommend that you try this book—you’ll end up thoughtful about the human condition. You also may end up emotionally exhausted. But you’ll be entertained in the process.

Click Here To Purchase Hemlock Lake (Five Star Mystery Series)