Another rip-roaring cozy mystery set in outrageous Maggody, Arkansas, a town so strange that even Hollywood filmmakers can’t believe it’s real.
From the Kwik-Stoppe-Shoppe to the Pot O’ Gold Mobile Home Park, there isn’t much glamour in Maggody . . . but this flyspeck Arkansas town is about to become famous. When a Hollywood production company chooses Maggody as a backdrop for an X-rated Ozarks “Romeo and Juliet,” the locals are starstruck. And as Maggody is flooded with washed-up actors, ruthless producers, and a cynical crew, the townsfolk will do anything for a close-up—even if it means resorting to murder.
Chief of Police Arly Hanks has no time for Hollywood—she’s got her hands full with a local arsonist—but when one of the actors is found dead in a bathtub, she’s forced to intervene. As the film spins out of control, Arly realizes that the citizens of Maggody will stop at nothing to get their fifteen minutes of fame—even as the town burns down around them.
In the spirit of David Mamet’s State and Main, this delightful novel shows that when Hollywood collides with small-town values, the movie industry doesn’t stand a chance.
Mortal Remains in Maggody is the 5th book in the Arly Hanks Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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Mortal Remains in Maggody
An Arly Hanks Mystery
By Joan Hess
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1991 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
"WILD CHERRY WINE"
1 EXT. SHACK — DAY — MED. SHOT
LORETTA BIGGINS carries a basket of wash to the clothesline and begins to pin overalls on the line. CAMERA WIDENS and we see BILLY JOE JENKS watching her from behind the fence.
Looks like you done some growing up while you was stayin' with your kinfolks over in Oklahoma.
Reckon I did, though I can't see how it's any of your business, Billy Joe Jenks.
I always thought you was too big for your britches. Now I can see you've filled them out mighty nicely.
Loretta tosses her chin and returns to her chores. Billy Joe comes through the gate and saunters up to her.
2 CLOSE SHOT — LORETTA
Loretta's startled gaze reflects her sudden awareness that Billy Joe has matured, too.
3 RETURN TO SCENE
Seems you done growed some yourself.
Does this mean we'uns is too old to play doctor like we used to?
Why, Billy Joe! I'm shocked you could say something like that to my face. You know I'm a good girl. I'm saving myself for the man I marry.
You mean Cooter Grimmley? I heard some talk at the pool hall about how your ma finalized it with ol' Cooter just last night.
Loretta sinks to the ground and covers her face with her hands. Her shoulders shake as she is convulsed with sobs. Billy Joe squats beside her and clumsily tries to comfort her.
Oh, Billy Joe, I cain't bear to think of Cooter Grimmley. He's so mean and nasty. Pa wouldn't make me marry him, would he? I'd just die!
I'll take care of you, Loretta, honey. I won't let that Cooter get his filthy, hairy hands on you. You're too good and pure for that durn polecat!
Billy Joe wraps his arms around Loretta, who wipes away her tears and bravely lifts her face to smile at him. CAMERA MOVES IN as he kisses her. Loretta's face is pink as she pushes him away.
I've never ... let anyone do that before, Billy Joe. It makes me feel kind of dizzy.
God, I love you, Loretta Biggins. You're the prettiest, sweetest, purest girl I ever known. My heart's about to burst with all this love I got for you.
Kin you could meet me tonight down by the creek?
Pa'll tan the living daylights outta me if he catches me.
She stumbles to her feet, but before she can take a step, Billy Joe grabs her. CLOSE UP on their faces.
Will you be there?
Ruby Bee was scared she was going to explode right then and there, splattering the walls and ceiling of Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill with blood and flesh and splinters of bones. Her eyes were as big and round as a matching set of harvest moons. Her body felt as though it were expanding like a liver-spotted pink balloon, and pretty soon her skin would have to give.
It was a delightful sensation.
"Now, you just say that one more time," she commanded in a squeaky voice, her throat so tight she could barely swallow.
The woman, who'd introduced herself earlier as Carlotta Lowenstein, was accustomed to such an intently physical reaction, and on more than one occasion she'd wondered if she remembered the finer points of CPR. "Why don't you have a glass of water?" she said with a sympathetic smile.
"Why, do forgive me, Miss Lowenstein!" Ruby Bee gasped. "Here I am as dumbstruck as a turkey in a thunderstorm and I didn't even think to offer you a glass of iced tea or a beer! I am ashamed of myself. What can I fix you?"
"Tea would be fine."
Ruby Bee bustled around behind the counter until she managed to pour enough tea in a glass to make her feel a little more hospitable. As she put the glass down in front of her visitor, the barroom door opened and sunlight momentarily splashed on the rows of booths, the jukebox, and the tiny dance floor.
"Yoo-hoo!" Estelle Oppers called as she marched across the room to the bar, her bony shoulders squared and her bright red hair styled in the way that always made Ruby Bee think about the Statue of Liberty. "Are we going to that flea market in Piccard or not? I thought you said you were going to pick me up at three, but it's a darn sight closer to —" She stopped as she noticed the young woman on a stool, the one on the end that she herself had a proprietary feeling about. "Excuse me, missy. I thought Ruby Bee was going to close on account of a flea market we were going to an hour ago."
"Hush, Estelle," Ruby Bee said without even looking at her. "This is Miss Carlotta Lowenstein, and she's a scout."
The final pronouncement was so melodramatic that Estelle waited for the fireworks to go off or the orchestra to start playing. When none of this happened, she wrinkled her nose and said, "As in Girl Scout?"
"I scout for locations," the woman explained. "I work for Glittertown Productions, Inc. We're a small, independent company from the Los Angeles area."
"Movies," Ruby Bee said reverently. "Miss Lowenstein works for a movie company."
"You do?" Estelle said, impressed in spite of herself. She took a harder look at the woman, who didn't look like one of those movie people, not with her neatly cropped dark hair and stocky body. Distorted by thicklensed glasses, her eyes looked a little bulgy but intelligent. Her suit was nice enough, although it was wrinkled and one of the cuffs was missing a button. She wasn't unattractive, but she wasn't at all glamorous — and therefore was seriously suspect. "You're really from Hollywood?"
"Our office is in Burbank, but we've used some of the sound lots in Hollywood," Carlotta said. "Because we're small and work on a tight budget, we do a lot of work on location in some of the less expensive areas of the country. We finished up a film in Arizona at the beginning of the spring."
"What's it called?" asked Ruby Bee.
Carlotta took a long drink of tea while she considered her reply. The truth would not sit well. "It's not ready for release yet, and our executive producer likes to keep the titles to himself until the distribution's finalized. It's an in-joke of sorts."
Ruby Bee and Estelle nodded, both secretly thrilled to be privy to a Hollywood in-joke, even if it was hard to figure out what was so dadburned funny about it.
"Well?" Carlotta said as she finished her tea. "What do you think about your town as the location for our next production? If we can arrange to use the sites I mentioned earlier, and if we have the cooperation of the citizens, I'm prepared to fly back to the Coast and grease the gears."
"What sites?" Estelle demanded.
As usual, Ruby Bee butted in. "They need a shack and a barn, and Miss Lowenstein happened to drive by Raz's place. I can't imagine he'd object, even if he has to relocate Marjorie to the backyard. They also need a big house with pillars and bushes." She wiggled her eyebrows at Estelle, who was having no trouble reading her mind. "I'm sure the mayor would be honored to have his house in a movie, aren't you?"
"The mayor?" Carlotta said doubtfully.
"Hizzoner Jim Bob Buchanon," Estelle cut in. "He owns that ugly supermarket across the street. Mrs. Jim Bob can be difficult to deal with, to put it mild-like, but I reckon she'll puff up like a soufflé when she finds out her house is going to be on the big screen." She was proud of tossing out the lingo so casually, but this movie woman was frowning as if her pantyhose were affecting her circulation. "Do you happen to need a beauty parlor?" she added optimistically.
Carlotta just kept frowning. "Mrs. Jim Bob?"
Ruby Bee butted in once again. "It's one of those local traditions that's hard to explain. Her real name's Barbara Anne Buchanon Buchanon, she and Jim Bob being first or second cousins once or twice removed. In fact, you're going to run into a whole passel of Buchanons. There's Earl and Eilene, and their boy Kevin, who's betrothed to Dahlia O'Neill, whose granny is a Buchanon from the Emmet branch of the family. Raz Buchanon, as I mentioned earlier. Adele Wockerman was a Buchanon afore she married, and —"
"They marry each other?" Carlotta murmured. Her eyes were narrowed behind the lenses, and she wasn't sounding overly enchanted with the amount of inbreeding that everyone in Maggody took for granted. After all, it had been going on for a good hundred years, and no one was exactly clamoring for admission to the clan.
"Some of them," said Estelle. "You can recognize them by their chimpanzee foreheads and yellowish eyes. None of them's what you might call college material, but they have the right number of fingers and toes, and not one of them's been locked away in one of those hospitals for the insane."
Ruby Bee scooted the pretzel bowl in front of their guest and gave Estelle a thoughtful look. "What about Terdlow Buchanon? Didn't he end up in prison for whacking up his parents and trying to sell the body parts to the poultry plant in Starley City?"
"I reckon he did. And there's Maisie Louise Buchanon, who had nigh onto sixty cats locked in her house when they finally found her body at the end of the summer. Phewy!"
"We can't forget Robin Buchanon, neither. She was blown to smithereens at the edge of a marijuana patch up on Cotter's Ridge. Her bush colts were mean enough to pluck live chickens with their teeth."
"A beer," Carlotta said, fanning herself with a clipboard. "A beer sounds quite lovely."
Estelle settled down on the adjoining stool, propped her elbows on the bar, and said, "So what's this movie about, Miss Lowenstein?"
"Please, call me Carlotta. The screenplay's still in the rewrite stage, but basically it's a contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet. Young love thwarted, that sort of thing."
"I see," Estelle said with a sage nod. She popped a pretzel in her mouth and tried to remember the plot. It'd been a good thirty-five years since she'd been in high school, and she hadn't paid all that much attention in class, having already decided on her career in the art of hair design. There was the balcony, and something about messages getting mixed up. She was almost sure the boy and the girl croaked in the end.
"What's it gonna be named?" Ruby Bee asked.
Carlotta was keenly aware of the potential danger, and once again paused to seek the safest path through the minefield. "At the moment, we're calling it Wild Cherry Wine. The director, Hal Desmond, wants to convey the essential timelessness of the plot by the utilization of the long-standing traditions of the region. It's an exploration of the interdynamics of a family unit that must seek equilibrium in the universal conflict of personal fulfillment versus basic survival."
Ruby Bee blinked, but she didn't say, "Huh?" Hollywood people were supposed to talk like that, she figured. "Who're the stars?"
Carlotta rattled off five names so quickly that neither Ruby Bee nor Estelle caught any of them. "I must make my calls," she said, still talking faster than a truck barreling down the interstate, "and start lining up the production crew and clearing schedules. We'll be here at the end of next week, and we'll need all the available motel rooms in town and a catering service. I'll be back with you on the details as soon as I do a preliminary with the production people."
"How long will it take to make this movie?" Ruby Bee said, not bothering to mention that all the available motel rooms (five of them, to be exact) were out back and the only caterer in town was standing three feet away with a dishrag in her hand.
"No more than two weeks, if we can do the exteriors without any weather delays." Carlotta put the strap of her bulky purse over her shoulder and picked up her clipboard. "I look forward to seeing both of you shortly," she said as she slid off the stool. "I'll be in touch."
"Are you going to need any extras?" asked Estelle.
"A few." Carlotta saw no reason to explain that the vast majority of scenes took place in bedrooms or in intimate clearings in the woods. All three of the previous productions had tiptoed along the delicate line between an R rating and an X rating, not because Hal had moral reservations but because the distribution money was better if the films could be shown at drive-in theaters.
She went out to the rental car and stopped to assess the potential establishing shots for the opening credits of "Wild Cherry Wine." The sign at the edge of town proclaimed a population of seven hundred fifty-five, but the sign was pockmarked from years as a target and splattered with bird droppings. She'd driven past a peculiar metal structure called the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall, a hardware store, a pool hall with a cross-eyed drunk in the doorway, a line of boarded-up stores, and an antiques store complete with a red-necked rube in a rocking chair. After a delay at the single stoplight, she'd passed a supermarket as tacky as anything back home; a launderette with the improbable name Suds of Fun; and a small, red-brick building with a police car parked nearby.
Glittertown Productions, Inc., had experienced problems with law enforcement agencies on every production, the law about prevailing community standards being so vague. Only three months ago, lynchings had been mentioned in Flagstaff. Hal had sweated like a marathon runner until the last scene was done and the entire company could flee across the state line.
Carlotta went back inside Ruby Bee's. The two women broke off their spirited conversation as she said, "Do I need to clear anything with the police department? We might require traffic control for one or two scenes, and we always prefer to cooperate with the local authorities." As in bribing them ahead of time to circumvent expensive delays.
"Oh, no," Ruby Bee said quickly. "I am personally acquainted with the chief of police, and I'm sure she'll be tickled pink at the idea of a movie being made in Maggody. Why, it's the most exciting thing that's happened here since Hiram Buchanon's barn burned down, and that was a good twenty years ago."
"Two of the local teenagers were ... courting in the hayloft," Estelle added.
"Ciao, then," Carlotta said and returned to the car, smiling to herself as she savored the delicacy of the phrase. She had a feeling the citizens of Maggody, Arkansas, were going to be more than a little taken aback when they learned how Hollywood, or at least her company, defined the word "courting" these days.
"Hiram Buchanon's barn, twenty years ago," I said into the telephone receiver. I settled my feet on the corner of my desk, rocked my chair back until it hit the wall, and gazed idly out the window. "That chicken house where the marijuana was being cured. The bank and Miss Una's house. Four fires in twenty years, Harve. Now we've had three more in the last month."
Harve Dorfer, the Stump County sheriff, exhaled noisily, and I could almost smell acrid cigar smoke. "I know, Arly, I know. But what in tarnation can we do about it? I sure as hell don't have the manpower to put a deputy inside every old barn and shack in this half of the county."
"The volunteer fire department from Emmet offered to open a branch office in town. I'm thinking about cornering the market in marshmallows and wieners." I held up my free hand to admire the black grime under my fingernails. "I went back to that last shack and took another look. For some crazy reason, I got it into my head that I was being watched. I looked over my shoulder once too often and ran into a tree."
"Haunted, is it?" Harve chuckled.
"It may be haunted, but it's also arson. Our problem is that it's going to be damn hard to prove it. I talked to the investigator at the state police barracks, and he agreed it was impossible to determine anything from a pile of ashes."
"Think we got us a nut case?"
"Three fires in a month," I said, sighing. "All abandoned structures of little or no value, and the damage confined to the immediate site. No one hurt, no families left homeless, no great loss to the landscape. But, yeah, Harve, I think we've got a nut case with a box of matches and no socially redeeming hobbies."
We chatted for a while longer, but neither of us had a theory worthy of repeating, nor did we have a devious scheme to find the nut and take away his matches. After we'd given up, I went outside and looked at the ridge beyond the east side of town. The mountainside was pale green. Although the nights were cool, the days were beginning to swell with early-summer warmth. The teenagers had begun to skip school to skinny-dip in Boone Creek, and the grown-ups to sit on their porches in the evenings to drink iced tea and monitor their neighbors.
Excerpted from Mortal Remains in Maggody by Joan Hess. Copyright © 1991 Joan Hess. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
If you love mischief and malice, mirth and mystery, you'll be mad about Mortal Remains in Maggody.
Sharp-edged, fast-paced, and funny as hell -- this is Joan Hess at her rollicking best.
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