Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
A Gus LeGarde Mystery
By Aaron Paul Lazar
Jan 2023, Paperback, 256 pages, ISBN-13: 979-8588878623
According to Wikipedia, a cozy mystery is a gentle story where violence, sex, and crime take place mostly through hints rather than explicitly and where small country communities are central to the storyline. I think it’s fair to say that Aaron Paul Lazar’s Gus LeGarde mystery series is the epitome of cozy. While the books themselves are full of all the suspense, intensity and intrigue of any mystery – there is plenty of murder, mayhem, sex and violence and the stakes are high, but the work is never explicit, and there is a gentleness deeply embedded into the work. Here the local fictional community of ‘East Goodland’ in the Genesee Valley is very much centre stage with its winding rivers, waterfalls, woodlands and bucolic scenery. There is also music, which provides the backdrop to the story. As a music professor, Gus LeGarde is a talented performer as are the many friends and colleagues who congregate around him:
Byron wooed the crowd with his lyrical arias. He began with “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’Elisir D’Amore by Donizetti. While it seemed impossible that he could possibly top that one, he launched into “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot, by Puccini. I glanced up and noticed Shelby practically swooning in the front row beside Camille. For that matter, the entire crowd was captivated. He built to a heart-wrenching version of “Che gelida manina” from La Bohéme by Puccini.
Then there is the garden and the delicious food that Gus cooks with his abundance of garden produce and keen sense of culinary scents (I’m hoping Lazar creates a Gus LeGarde cookbook next):
I’d picked a dozen ripe red tomatoes earlier and had put the whole thing together at six in the morning. My recipe was always the same, including hamburger, canned kidney beans, a whole Vidalia onion, five cloves of garlic, beef stock, and spices galore. Cumin was the most important of them all, notwithstanding the chili powder, of course. The house was redolent with the aroma, and I could barely contain my desire for a cup.
Gus is a man whose decency shines through whatever mishaps he finds himself in and he does indeed find himself embroiled in all sorts of problems. The Return is the 13th book in the series, in which Gus’ beloved first wife Elsbeth, who died many years ago, has suddenly begun appearing around the town. When Elsbeth’s twin, Gus’ longtime friend Sigfried, also spots Elsbeth, Gus knows it’s not just his imagination. He’s confused and his current wife Camille is worried about what a return of Elsbeth will mean for their relationship. But Gus is also worried about his eighteen year old daughter Shelby’s new relationship with the odd boy who has moved into the old Marggrander homestead next door. Gus has to use all of his sleuthing skills and Camille’s expert negotiation skills to once again save the day.
The book is fast paced, drawing you in from the first chapter, and progressing with exciting turns in a way that the book is always pleasurable and satisfying, and even the worst antagonists are treated with empathy. It’s hard not to like Gus, who is always ready to lend a helping hand or a basket of fresh picked zucchinis and corn. Lazar is a master craftsman and pays careful attention to language, plot, pacing and character so that all of the elements tie together neatly and seamlessly, description charged with rich nostalgia:
I leaned on the cool painted post and gazed at the silhouette of the barn against the diamond-studded sky. Crickets and tree peepers sang in the woods, as if denying the end of summer. I inhaled the fragrance of late summer roses wafting in the night air, the climbing yellow variety Elsbeth planted when we were first married. Now they engulfed the porch and grew up the trellis as if they were reaching for Heaven.
As the title makes clear, a lot of threads from other LeGarde mysteries come into this one and while you don’t need to have read any of the previous books to follow—Lazar takes great care to provide back story every time a character is introduced in a way that feels natural—it does add to the enjoyment to know who the person is, what they went through, and the extent of their connection with Gus and his family. There are all sorts of easter eggs for fans of the series and I won’t give any of them away but some additional bits of treasure include rare and hidden paintings, secret passages, Chopin of course, and also, just for The Return, Queen, whose music is woven throughout the story.
There’s so much to like about The Return. For those new to Gus LeGarde, this book is not a bad place to start because it brings together a lot of the plot lines from previous books without requiring previous knowledge, though of course you can also start at the beginning of the series, which moves back and forth in time—a lot happens in the thirteen books! What really makes these books “cozy” in the best sense of the word is that they are a celebration of family, kindness, and camaraderie. The plot is driven forward by the way the characters support one another in non-judgemental, open-hearted ways. The book is never syrupy – in fact there are all sorts of really awful things that happen, not least of which Elsbeth’s death which, though in the past, colours the present with a rupture that clearly hasn’t healed. There is pain, trauma, fear, and deep-seated anger in some of the characters. But what is overwhelming is the way Gus interacts with both his extended family—his grandchildren, children, partner and friends, and how that care extends itself outward into a kind of philosophy that colours all of the work.