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by Rebecca Rothenberg, completed by Taffy Cannon

Perseverance Press/John Daniel and Company, 2001
ISBN: 188028443X
237 pages (paperback)

Reviewed by Pamela White

Rebecca Rothenberg brings back Claire Sharples, San Joaquin Valley's plant pathologist most likely to uncover murder, for both our botanical edification and extreme puzzling enjoyment.

Claire Sharples is given to the reader as a living, breathing three-dimensional woman. One facet of her personality fails at the unscientific discipline of romance, while another includes success with the study of beneficial microbial fungi. Her wit, energy and sheer determination to survive when the bad guys start ganging up on her, engages the reader immediately and keeps us hanging on throughout the book.

No less care is given to creating the other characters in the book. Ramon, Claire's colleague, is a caring and witty, possible romantic interest who helps Claire solve both her plant and murder mysteries. Yolanda, Ramon's cousin and former investigative reporter, lives behind wrought iron window gates and security systems held prisoner by her fear of retaliation from the most powerful man in the area. And most notably, there is Jewel, a country-western singer from decades earlier who lost her heart for singing when her sweetheart suddenly disappeared.

It can be no coincidence that a skeleton, buried nearby the voracious Kern River's bed is uncovered by Claire while she is investigating a withered peach crop. The decades old skeleton draws Claire back to Jewel and into a world of cotton, music halls and crude oil, skillfully sketched for the reader.

This is a murder mystery that challenges and thrills the reader. The characters are alive, interesting, quirky and, at least one of them is murderous. The setting, an arid stretch of California, becomes an intriguing place as we learn of its history in oil and cotton and its present in fruit and nut agriculture. It's an area where bad guys might just be as bad as they seem and passion can lead to heartache or to redemption.

Rebecca Rothenberg started this novel during her final battle with a brain tumor. Her friend, fellow author, Taffy Cannon was asked by the publishers to finish what Rothenberg started. To Cannon's great credit, she continues in the book's original voice in a seamless continuation of the story. It is a remarkable tribute to friendship among two writers that serves to increase the value of this novel.

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