Reviewer Tom Pope: Tom is a writing teacher and fiction coach who strives to spark the imagination. As a teacher, he works with tutoring services to help students organize essays and understand literary elements like the point of view. As a fiction coach, he aids authors to develop characters, brainstorm conflict pacing and design worldbuilding.
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Murder Strikes the Heart of Community Development
When Jorge, the son of the town detective, photographs a five legged frog, he draws readers into Betty Jean Craige’s murder mystery novel Downstream that focuses on social issues besides murder. Craige pulls the reader into a community where dollars are lined up against the very life of the town.
If many people today fear a world growing more complex, they are being hit by entangled forces of economics, health, ethics, and human rights. Craige’s skills blend her story with those forces by displaying the major forces that surround characters.
Craige almost sets up a model to help social change by relying on an alternative media to flush the killer into the open. Yet, the action occurs not from within the legal system of the town, but through an activist community that connects Native American cooperation with an established environmental group.
However, Craige’s work would have been aided if she chose to show rather than tell a character’s actions. Her presentation strikes as a textbook list of events with newspaper blurbs while her dialogue gives information that treats a character mostly as just a vehicle for delivery of detail than a fully rounded person.
Despite those drawbacks, Craige paints a complex true-to-life tale. The mystery of Francis Hearty Withers death shines a light on many possible culprits. Withers change of heart to donate a billion dollars to townspeople stopped the hope of new jobs with a biotech factory. Healthcare emerges more as a way to become rich with powerful pharmaceutical firms. The economic interest displayed in the mystery blends with the political interest where the mayor and lead doctor of the study become linked despite the ethics of a conflict of interest.
Meanwhile a cultural clash occurs in the heartland of where the Cherokee nation became victims of oppression years ago. That clash happens because a present-day Cherokee doctor supervises Wither’s nursing home of patients who use a new drug for its clinical trial. And the ideological view of Western medicine versus nature pits the five legged deformed frog against the once clear waters of the community.
Craige goes beyond the simple format of a linear story to thrust us into the modern world where forces seem to attack us from many directions. Yet those forces are linked. The villain could be the giant pharma company Senextra in it’s use of a drug that promises to extend human life. If people suffer side effects, who supervisors the problem? Does a clinical trial mean anything if the pharma company is so fixated on the new drug’s dollar potential that it skirts the idea of caring for patients? Could the villain be a management person in the pharma headquarters? Or the local town doctor?
Maybe the villain is the Cherokee doctor who seeks revenge for past wrongs from the ancestor of Withers, who set in motion the displacement of the Cherokees in the 1800s? If nature is being disturbed by the new interests, would the Cherokee doctor seek to correct the balance?
Craige offers a model for social change. The actions to flush the villain out come not from the usual source of the detective investigating the homicide. They arrive because the detective’s son sets his picture of a deformed frog on an alternative Web that begins to influence people that side effects could pose health risks. The son, Jorge, embraces the knowledge and ideology of people being tied to nature that exists within Native thinking. Jorge manages to widen his idea of ethics. Jorge links up with Gretchen, a health food store owner and leader of the town’s Eat Locally Movement. Jorge widens his influence because he relies on help from Gretchen to spread the word about new ways to view health other than thinking about making money for a pharma company.
The model offers insight on how an activist can align with others to influence a policy.
While the book brings readers into new ways to view community development, the author could have used some tools differently. The use of giving the background details in news item blurbs rather than from the point of view of a character places a distance between reader and the character. Some use of blurbs works well to highlight the ability of an alternative media. But overuse takes away from getting into the head of the character.
And the overwhelming emphasis of telling instead of showing appears even in the dialogue. Most conversations happen without any body language description that informs the reader about the character. The dialogue seems more as a continuation of the news blurbs while it could be used to reveal inner torment or hidden flaws of the character.
The extensive diary entries from the character of the Cherokee doctor does come close to showing some of the emotions needed in a character. Yet his example is not repeated with detective Arroyo who reacts to problems by trying solving a mystery without deeper emotions that could be pulling her. Especially since she is undergoing a lumpectomy during the case. Especially since her son Jorge is a key character in the story.
Craige reveals inner thoughts without showing body language in most cases. She has the character thinking his plans and how a dislike of other characters exists. But people rarely think fully about their inner emotions. Their body language could reveal more. Craige misses the opportunity to cast a character in a meeting with others where readers could see details. How does the character walk, sneer, grip a hand, or twist the face? Those tools lead readers to see beyond a dialogue.
However, the novel works as a vivid display of the complexities of forces within a community. Craige brings readers into a reflection of today’s world by making readers think about the actions of business and culture. She reminds us that economic greed can lead to violence. But that models exist through activism to correct social oppression.