County of Offenses
Somewhere in West Texas
Murder, Arson, Infidelity, Crimes Against Bœuf Bourguignon
Known Gang Affiliations
Date of Offense
This book opens with a devastating library fire in the small, fictional West Texas town of Last Chance. In tiny West Texas towns, somebody getting a new truck or forgetting someone’s birthday is a big deal. So the town’s grand old library burning down? Tragedy. But it gets worse when they realize their beloved librarian, Hephestia Jo (Miss Hattie), was inside when it burned. And at Christmas no less; added a nice bit of pathos, I thought.
The community is beside itself. Miss Hattie wasn’t just a librarian; she seemed to be the bindery glue that held the town together. Under her considerable influence, Last Chance locked down the highest literacy rate in the state and became a model for making most of life in a small town—especially for kids.
And here’s the clever bit of the book: Upon her death, Miss Hatty left nine seemingly random books for nine very specific people in the community: Coding for Dummies for the town’s resident Apple employee, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! to an aging playboy, and on it went: Like Water for Chocolate (in Spanish), The Complete Works of Shakespeare—a copy of Persuasion by Jane Austin to her best friend, wealthy philanthropist Dory Russell. The town gets to reading at once, both to seek out what Miss Hatty was trying to say to each of the books’ recipients AND so they can attempt to put together the circumstances surrounding her death. Also, this is Last Chance and reading is cool.
The fire was, of course, arson—which made Miss Hatty’s death a murder. But who among the residents of Last Chance could possibly have had it in for Miss Hatty? Could it have something to do with the proposed corridor project that threatens the future of the town? Was it shame around an overdue copy of Where the Red Fern Grows? OR was it that rival library over in Post? (OK, I just made that up; that’s not in the book and the good people of Post would never do that.) Still, something happened. And now the residents of Last Chance are paying the price.
As the story unfolds, and life goes on for this community, everyone is painfully aware of the true extent of her contribution to those around her. After school programs. Arts initiatives. Civic leadership, community services, standing up for the less fortunate, promoting literacy, connecting people, etc. The woman wasn’t a librarian; she was an institution.
I think the premise of this novel was just brilliant, because if you're a reader you probably love libraries. Like Ray Bradbury said: “Without libraries, what have we? We have no past and no future.” Writers, whose work demands rigorous research, are especially aware of how critical these professionals are to the world of letters.
But Miss Hatty’s death is also a metaphor for the difference it’s possible for one person to make in the world during his or her lifetime. Most of us, me included, don’t bother giving back. We’re too focused on getting for ourselves. But what could each of us do for our community if we really try? The results aren’t as obvious in a big city, but the story’s small-town setting gives us a nice It’s a Wonderful Life-like backdrop on which to explore the topic.
With the publishing of Last Chance, Texas Kerr stacks herself among an esteemed group of contemporary working mystery novelists who’ve used libraries and librarians as key elements in their stories. Offhand I’m thinking about Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library (the third Miss Marple novel), Miranda James’s Cat in the Stacks series—even Umberto Echo’s Name of the Rose. Of course, in this case it’s the love of the library that drives the story. By the time the reader arrives, the library itself is already up in smoke.
Another thing I really liked about this book was the West Texas setting. I graduated from high school in West Texas (graduating class of about 90), and went to college out there too. It’s a place that means a lot to me, and feels like home in many ways. So it was cool to hear about people going to the big city of Lubbock for its nightlife, and refreshing to hear my old alma mater, Texas Tech University (Guns Up!) in a mystery story. I live in Houston these days, and there aren’t that many Red Raiders around to appreciate my mad tortilla throwing skills.
I liked much less the author’s creative decision to use the novel as a platform to grandstand her political views. I mention this not because I disagree with the author’s politics; it’s simply that I thought it distracting. in my view it slowed the story a bit. But, hey, when it’s your book you get to make those kinds of decisions.
For this review I bought both the Kindle edition and the audio book from Audible. The Audible version is a lot of fun because the author narrates it herself with her homegrown Texas accent—adding a whole new dimension to the story. I love the way she gave Last Chance a big Shakespeare festival. And Kerr really paints the town of Last Chance with the believable, intimate quirkiness of small town living. When I’d finished Last Chance, Texas I kind of missed the people and the town.
I hope the book wasn’t our last chance to read about Last Chance. As long as nothing else in the town burns down, that is. I think it would be neat if Kerr wrote a story in which there were a murder in the middle the town’s big Shakespeare festival, and Miss Dory took it upon herself to figure out what happened. Or maybe she and her dashing new European beau can be a couples sleuthing team. I’m sure we’ll hear more from Kerr in some way soon.
Anyhoo, if you want to bring a librarian-killer to justice, and we all do, you need this book in your life.
Verdict: Guilty of spinning a suspenseful small-town mystery that makes us grateful for librarians everywhere.
Reminder: Don't be found in contempt. If you buy this book, be a responsible reader and leave a review. These authors spend big chunks of their lives creating this work, so support the arts by sharing your opinion.