(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Joan Hess is the fifth generation of her family to live in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on which the town of Farberville in the Claire Malloy series is loosely based. She possesses a strong sense of community, which is one of the dominant themes in her novels. In the Malloy novels, however, the community is one of women, especially of the vulnerable and the old, who exist within the larger community but are not fully understood by that community or protected by it. In the Theodore Bloomer novels, the communities are outside the United States and must be understood by Bloomer if the crimes are to be solved. Maggody is an isolated community, frequently invaded by a variety of human predators.

Claire Malloy Series

In Claire Malloy, Hess has created a complex and believable amateur sleuth. Claire, first-person narrator of the novels, is a widow. Her husband taught at Farber College. Unknown to his wife, he was among the professors who seduced female students and coerced them into having sex. While driving on an icy road to a nearby motel with a female student, his vehicle was rammed by a chicken truck and he died amid bloody feathers. The student survived and her father kept her name out of the news and police reports. Left on her own, Claire has worked hard to establish a business. Her Book Depot brings in an adequate income. She has protected Caron, her daughter, from the circumstances of her father’s death. Caron envies the luxuries possessed by her wealthier peers and sometimes launches imaginative money-raising schemes. In their impulsiveness, their imagination, and their independence, mother and daughter are more alike than either wants to admit.

Strangled Prose

In Strangled Prose, Mildred Twiller, who writes romance novels under the name Azalea Twilight, talks Claire Malloy into hosting an autograph party on publication of her new book, Professor of Passion. Claire is reluctant, but she feels sympathy for Mildred, whose husband is one of the campus’s more active womanizers. Once Claire gives her word, she will not break it, even though she mildly sympathizes with members of the Farber Women’s Organization (FWO), who threaten to hold a violent protest against the sexism of the romance genre. Instead, at the reception, one FWO member reads select passages from Professor of Passion. The novel exposes the sexual antics of Farber College male professors and contains a barely disguised account of the death of Claire’s husband. Claire, embarrassed, flees and becomes a suspect when Mildred is murdered. Farberville police lieutenant Peter Rosen investigates. He becomes a series character and romantically interested in Claire, but Claire, independent and understandably made wary by the betrayals of her marriage, resists commitment.

Other women, vulnerable like Mildred, often lure Claire into investigations. In Dear Miss Demeanor (1987), Caron and her friend Inez Brandon (later Inez Thornton), insist that Miss Emily Parchester, a dithery, ladylike veteran high school teacher, be exonerated when Parchester is accused of embezzlement by a high-handed and unpleasant male principal. When the principal is murdered, Parchester is a logical suspect. In Roll Over and Play Dead (1991), Claire is pet-sitting Parchester’s bassets when they are stolen, and she tries to find them. In Busy Bodies (1995), Miss Parchester invites Claire to tea. Claire discovers that Parchester’s quiet neighborhood...

(The entire section is 1432 words.)