North of Petoskey
by Keith Taylor
Back in 1980 we all knew about Judith Guest. Her first novel, Ordinary People, a story about a dysfunctional midwestern upper-middle-class family originally published in 1976, was turned into Robert Redford's directorial debut, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. She has written a handful of other books, but none that tried to take advantage of the theme or location that had worked so well for her in that first novel.
Now she has written a murder mystery, The Tarnished Eye. As with most mysteries, its appeal hinges on the authenticity of the protagonist - in this case Hugh DeWitt, sheriff of the little town of Blessed, Michigan, somewhere north of Petoskey on the shores of Lake Michigan. Hugh has his own problems, mostly an unrelenting grief over the death of his infant son three years before the novel begins. But this sheriff knows his town and his county. He understands the tension between the locals who have managed to make a living up there for generations and the nouveau riche who build their gigantic homes with spectacular views of the Big Lake and then come up for weekends in the summer.
The mystery, apparently based on an unsolved crime from the 1960s, centers on the murder of all the members of one of those summer families. The Norbois family is from Ann Arbor, where the father owns a very profitable printing and publishing venture. As the book unfolds, the massacre looks as if it might be a crime of passion, then one done for financial gain, then a random sex crime - and it is finally revealed to be something else entirely. Guest moves easily through these plot twists, always giving just enough to keep the reader guessing, yet making her revelations seem entirely plausible. Her prose is crystal clear and never distracts from the story being told.
Because of the Ann Arbor connection, the sheriff makes several trips down here. In fact, maybe as
much as half of the book takes place in this city. Judith Guest was a U-M student in the 1950s, but her memories are no longer exact, and I enjoyed finding several things about Ann Arbor that she had wrong. For instance, the local high school in The Tarnished Eye is Ann Arbor High, which ceased to exist shortly after Guest lived here. At one point she mentions a Burger King at the intersection of State and Washtenaw, two streets that haven't crossed in the twenty-five years I've lived in town. But she has obviously done some research about the changed cultural life of our city, she writes well about the student sections close to the university, and she understands our changing demographics. The new subdivisions on the edges of town, filled with three-story million-dollar homes clustered around golf courses, have now found a very interesting place in fiction.
Judith Guest returns to Ann Arbor to read from The Tarnished Eye at Nicola's Books on Wednesday, June 30.
[Originally published in June, 2004.]