Murder at the Ingham County Fair
Richard Baldwin
Buttonwood Press, 2009
Review by Kara Gheldof

In his eleventh self-published mystery novel, Murder at the Ingham County Fair, Michigan author Richard Baldwin presents a good old-fashioned whodunit and pays homage to his hometown through the telling of the investigation of Judge Winston Breckinridge’s murder. Leading the investigation is the astute, gentlemanly hero of Baldwin’s previous mystery novels, private detective Lou Searing, and a crafty team of diverse investigators that frequently aid him on cases.

Discounting a handy, informative paragraph regarding the real-life history of the Ingham County Fair (begun in 1855, admission was originally ten cents, a price which has no doubt increased as the number of attendees skyrocketed over the past century and a half), there is no prologue; Baldwin dives directly into the murder at the heart of the novel. The first chapter of Ingham County reads like a procedural drama, dumping exposition about the physical details of the case, a style of writing that is not repeated for the remainder of the novel. Instead, the remaining 200 pages consist primarily of dialogue, with maybe 5-10% leftover for descriptive writing.

In addition to over-reliance on dialogue, we are laden with a plethora of suspects—any one of whom has a feasible motive and conveniently no alibi—and seemingly irrelevant details—such as the Interstates each team member took on their drives or the way a suspect interviewed spells her name. If this style of storytelling was intentionally done to bewilder the reader and leave them questioning up until the very end who committed the murder, then Baldwin has succeeded, because the motive and final reveal of the culprit responsible is impossible to guess based on the clues given. Ingham County would benefit more from more showing and less telling, if the readers are at all meant to take on the duties of novice detective alongside Lou and his team.

Speaking of Lou’s team, they might serve an equally effective purpose narrating infomercials about political correctness. Lou himself is a senior citizen, as is his assistant and primary field operative Jack Kelly, a replacement for the inexplicably disabled (and adoptive mother of a Korean baby) Maggie McMillan. The fourth team member is a college student named Heather, also wheelchair-bound, who helps to modernize their investigative techniques. There is no discernable reason for either female to be wheelchair-bound, as it does not help or hinder in any way. Even Lou’s dog is handicapped, having lost one of its legs in an earlier incident with an assassin pursuing Lou that sounded much more exciting than anything that happened in Ingham County.

Despite its insistence that Lou and his team are fascinating and extraordinary, one thing that Ingham County is not is a character-driven story. You can count on your fingers the number of personality traits attributed to all four team members, and they are usually immaterial details, such as Lou’s membership in Knights of Columbus, the Harley he owns and rarely drives, the fact that everyone orders French Vanilla lattes at a local coffee shop, and one throwaway line about Jack being a snappy dresser. The despicable murder victims are given a much broader and clearer range of personality than our investigators, leaving very little to relate to as a reader.

It’s not even clear why Lou was brought into the case in the first place besides the simple fact that he was around when it occurred. According to Baldwin, local authorities in Michigan don’t have time to look into the murder of a high-ranking and controversial judge and would much rather rely on a local “small-time” private detective. If we had seen the authorities participate in the investigation at any time during the months it took place, Lou’s involvement would be excusable, but they never once showed up to help. It might even be easy to overlook this if what we are told about Lou’s team—that they are highly intelligent and perceptive—were true, but their techniques are nothing out of the ordinary and in fact each person relies quite heavily on the “blunt force” method of interrogation. At least half a dozen times throughout the novel, Lou or one of his teammates flat out asks a suspect, “Did you kill the judge?” as if this were at all an acceptable or reliable form of cross-examination.

Still, despite its mistakes and regrettable lack of imagery, there are parts to enjoy about Ingham County. Scattered throughout the book are illustrations by high-schooler Everett Jason Van Allsburg, which add very little to the story, but are a unique touch to the mystery novel experience. In addition, there are dozens of goodies for Michiganders to find, as Lou’s team visits places (and probably people) local to the real Ingham County, where Baldwin resides. A coffee shop called Bestsellers gets face time, as does a restaurant called Blondies, and even Tigers’ pitcher Justin Verlander gets his named dropped. No doubt there are a lot of parallels to Baldwin’s every day life to be found in Lou Searing’s routine. Both are married, write mysteries on the side, and even own a cat named Millie. It’s nice to see these regional details show up, proof that the author is proud to represent his hometown. Disappointingly, the titular fair itself played only a minor part in the murder, and is completely forgotten halfway through.

The mystery itself remains as such throughout the entirety of the book. For better or for worse, there’s no way to determine Winston Breckinridge’s killer until shortly before the culprit is arrested. This is definitely a whodunit that keeps you guessing, so if you’re the type of reader who likes to be kept on their toes and run through all the possibilities, then this may be a good mystery novel for you. If, however, you are looking for a story with vibrant, well-drawn-out characters, it may be necessary to read more of Baldwin’s series to paint the full picture. As it is, Murder at the Ingham County Fair presents only abstract figures revolving around an even more intangible landscape. It may not be clear who they are, why they are there, or how they are doing it, but they get the job done.

© Kara Gheldof, 2010