By Linda Wallace

Author's thoughts on the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Miss Zukas

I had the great pleasure of hearing author Jo Dereske speak at the Green Lake Library March 13. The photo is of me, admiring my autographed copy of Catalogue of Death, not Ms. Dereske.

Both the Seattle and King County libraries sponsor the most wonderful author lectures/readings/signings. Over the past few weeks, I’ve also seen Laura Lippman and Jodi Picoult. Alice Hoffman will be appearing at Seattle Central April 29 at 7 p.m. and at the Bellevue Library April 30 at 12:30 p.m. If you haven’t yet taken advantage of this great service our library systems offer, I suggest you make the time to attend one of the upcoming author readings. If you love books, you’ll be dazzled.

Jo Dereske is the author of the Miss Zukas librarian mystery series. Miss Zukas is a fascinating character. Dereske said when she began writing she was told no house would publish a mystery about a librarian. She took that with an “Oh, is that so?” attitude and produced Miss Zukas. But Miss Zukas is no ordinary, mundane librarian. Dereske took the clichés and multiplied them to the nth degree to produce both a one-of-a-kind and quintessential librarian who will keep you laughing as you follow her sleuthing.

Miss Zukas, or Helma, short for Wilhelmina, almost always chooses the correct and proper course. She adjusts her blinds just so to keep the furniture from fading; every surface is spotlessly clean; she drives her Buick exactly two miles over the speed limit; when she goes for a walk, she pins her key inside her pocket (no chance of Helma being locked out of her apartment or car); and she wears sensible clothes, shoes and hair. She can answer any question and does regardless of whether anyone has actually posed a query. She never allows misinformation to go uncorrected, much to the irritation of those careless with their facts. But she doesn’t rely only on book information to get at the truth of things. She makes her own observations and comes to her own conclusions. When the manual for her water-powered tooth-cleaning device warns not to use it on intimate areas, Miss Zukas checks the validity of the instructions herself and finds the results quite pleasant. Dereske builds detail upon detail of Miss Zukas’s life until you can practically hear her breathing beside you.

The one area where Helma ignores the sensible choice is in matters of the heart. Her artist friend Ruth provides the perfect foil for Miss Zukas by rarely choosing the appropriate path. In spite of Helma’s dismay at the wear and tear Ruth’s hard-drinking, man-chasing lifestyle takes on her friend, Miss Zukas doesn’t take the self-protective, pragmatic course of abandoning Ruth to own folly; she supports her friend no matter what kind of a scrape Ruth’s bad decisions get her in.

I feel an especial affinity for the Miss Zukas mysteries because they are set in Bellehaven, suspiciously similar to Bellingham, WA, not far from Mount Vernon, the site of my own mysteries. I recently completed Rhubarb Roil, the first in a series featuring a former Post-Intelligencer reporter who gives up journalism to open a fine-dining restaurant and unearth the secrets of her Dutch-emigrant family, who were among the first farmers to introduce tulips to the Skagit Valley, one of the largest bulb-producing regions in the world.

I’ve only read the first few of Miss Zukas’s adventures. Jo Dereske also writes the Ruby Crane mystery series, which I haven’t started yet. I’m so happy to have several more books to enjoy before I catch up to the eleventh Miss Zukas mystery, Index to Murder, which will be available April 29 from Avon/HarperCollins.

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