Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Holly Throsby
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781760630560, October 2018, Paperback, 400 pages
I didn’t quite understand the meaning of the phrase “cozy mystery” until I read Holly Throsby. There’s such a warm accessibility to her work that it truly feels welcoming and cozy – as if the reader were invited to an inclusive party. Cedar Valley isn’t a sequel to Throsby’s first novel Goodwood, but there’s a definite connection, not just because Goodwood is mentioned as a nearby town with some character overlaps – a little Easter egg for anyone who has read Goodwood, but also because Cedar Valley takes on a similar landscape. The setting is a small quiet town several hours from Sydney where everyone knows everyone else and has a long memory. The year is 1993 and Benny Miller has just arrived. Benny is a twenty one year old who has spent her whole life in Sydney where she has just completed university, quit her pub job and decided to take up the offer of a friend of her recently deceased mother to come stay in her mother’s old cottage in Cedar Valley. Benny knows nothing about town, the friend, and very little about her own mother, who had abandoned her when she was a small child, but something in Benny draws her to Cedar Valley. At the very same time that Benny arrives, so does another stranger – a good looking man, dressed inappropriately well, who sits down on the footpath for a while, conducts a series of odd stretches, and then dies. This is the premise of the story, in which twin narratives are built around those unusual arrivals to the otherwise insular town. It’s strangely compelling and reads quickly as the reader follows a series of clues like breadcrumbs to arrive more at a kind of truth than the ‘facts’.
The story unfolds gently in alternating sections in which Benny’s story arc moves in parallel to the investigation. The mystery man, whose baffling death mirrors the real life Tamam Shud case of 1948 – a mystery that has never been solved, is mostly presented via the point of view of a “reluctant resident “ named Detective Sargeant Anthony Simmons. Simmons bulk and hard stance makes a nice balance to the delicate complexity of Benny, whose grief for the mother she never knew and the self she doesn’t understand is intertwined with Simmons’ quest for answers about the death. Benny resembles her mother, the elusive Vivian Alice Moon, and the locals knew her and provide bits of information to Benny, and the reader that also function as clues that are evocative.
There are many quirky characters in Cedar Valley and they way in which the death provides a catalyst for the town’s transformation is compelling. There’s the motherly Odette Fisher, Benny’s host and an old friend of Vivian’s. There’s Cora Franks, the antique shop owner who found the stranger dead and called the ambulance. Cora’s story also has an arc, as the death of the familiar stranger causes her to question her own life, motives, and choices. There’s Ed Johnson the philanderer and his poor beleaguered wife Therese. There’s the handsome Tom Boyd, the bartender who hires Benny to work behind the bar, and the creepy chemist who noted the time when a mysterious blond woman made a phone call in a public booth and then disappeared:
Dieter Bernbaum, egg like in his balding, had sat on the chemist’s stool–a modern looking white leather contraption–and been oddly evasive for a man in possession of somewhat innocuous information: what time he had seen the blond woman; any further details of the blond woman. (296)
The life of the town centres around the pub, and the way in which the death provides a source for gossip, intrigue and transformation, but also in some respect brings the town together to support one another is charming. Cedar Valley is immensely readable and progresses in ways that are unpredictable but also smooth and natural. Interspersed with the human drama is the natural rhythm of the country – full of animal antics and a bucolic pace:
The cows had finished their food and the little white birds were standing next to them on the grass, and when Benny looked at the cows, the cows stared back. (390)
Cedar Valley is both light-hearted and humorous, but also serious. Benny in particular is a character that comes across as sincere, and her story is a coming-of-age that transforms the mystery in ways that is affirmative. Throsby said that Goodwood was modelled somewhat on the television series Northern Exposure and Cedar Valley has a very similar quality. Even in the midst of tragedy, people gossiping or sinister men making threatening comments, there’s no darkness in Cedar Valley. The strong sense of community as typified in the pub: ‘You’ll want to talk to people here. Listen to people. We care for them.’ (121) and of a kind of tolerance that comes with the acceptance of people’s individual quirkiness. Cedar Valley is a richly depicted novel, that makes for an easy, delightful read, full of humorous details and pithy observations. It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking this book.