In Depression-era Kansas, young Ralph McConnell and his friends find a body down by the river in the latest in the Young Ralph McMystery series.
Veteran author Neighbor (Princess Waconda, 2016, etc.) takes readers back to a story of childhood in north-central Kansas in the 1930s. (The dedicatee—and the protagonist’s namesake—is the author’s uncle, who died in a car crash in 1937 at the age of 10.) The discovery of the titular awful smell sets the plot in motion. Intrepid Ralph and his best buddies, Rusty and Teag, eventually steel themselves and fight through horseflies and stench to discover a body. It’s terribly decomposed, and no one has a clue whose it could be. Other characters include Ralph’s “maw,” Esther; his stepfather, Jeb; and various townspeople, relatives, disreputable “gandy dancers” from the railroad, and carnies, as the annual Celebration carnival is in town. Much of the story involves the kids’ pastimes and camaraderie and, especially, the backdrop of the Celebration. After word gets out about the body, practically the whole town comes out to gawk, but there are very few clues, as nobody has been reported missing. The lawmen and forensic people move in, the body is taken to a lab in Topeka, and the boys get caught up in the Celebration. Later, though, Ralph barely escapes from the bad guy. Overall, the mystery itself is rather weak. However, Neighbor still tells a good story, and his picture of life in that time and place is lovingly detailed. The language the author uses is true-to-life except for a couple of fancy words put in Ralph’s mouth, such as “castigate” and “explicated.” These characters are good people: Ralph’s anxious maw, his taciturn stepfather (the brother of Ralph’s late father), and others don’t have much money, but they do have love and religion and spunk, and that carries the day. All of this rings true.
Realistic local color and characters make up for a somewhat poor mystery plot.