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||June 2, 2006
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Alan Cook, Mystery and Walking Writer
Bobby sox, slow dancing, bomb shelters—and murder. Within two weeks after starting his senior year of high school in the 1950s, Gary Blanchard finds himself kicked out of one school and attending another—the school where his cousin, Ralph, mysteriously died six months before. Ralph’s death was labeled an accident, but when Gary talks to people about it, he gets suspicious. Did Ralph fall from the auditorium balcony, or was he pushed? Had he found a diamond necklace, talked about by cousins newly arrived from England that was supposedly stolen from Dutch royalty by a common ancestor and lost for generations? What about the principal with an abnormal liking for boys? And are Ralph’s ex-girlfriends telling everything they know? Key scenes take place in the hayloft of the barn on the farm where Gary is staying with his aunt and uncle—Ralph’s parents. What happens in that hayloft will affect Gary for the rest of his life—if he survives.
Some people must like to be the bearers of bad news. One of these is my younger brother, Archie. I had been practicing some preseason tennis on the indoor courts at Atherton High School and then ridden home on my bike, bucking the March winds. I had just barely entered our suburban house when he raced up to me. “Gary, Ralph’s dead,” he said, his voice trembling with emotion. “What?” I asked, unable to believe my ears. Was this some kind of a joke? “Ralph’s dead,” he said again. “He fell off the balcony in the Carter High School auditorium and killed himself." This couldn’t be true. Nobody fell off a balcony in real life. That sort of thing only happened in movies. Especially not my first cousin, Ralph, who was an all-star athlete and in complete control of his body at all times. But Archie, who liked practical jokes, looked pale and deadly serious. He obviously wasn’t kidding. I raced into the kitchen where my mother and my other brother, Tom, were sitting at the table in our breakfast nook, looking stunned. Nobody sat here at this time of day. Tears rolled freely down my mother’s cheeks while she dabbed at them ineffectually with a tissue and sniffed as if she had a cold. Happy-go-lucky Tom looked as if he had lost his last friend. “Is it true?” I asked them. My mother nodded and then said, the words choking her, “We just got a phone call from Aunt Dorothy. It happened after an assembly in the auditorium. Apparently Ralph stayed behind and was there all alone.” None of this made any sense. “Does Dad know?” I asked. “I just called him,” Mother said. “He’s on his way home.” My father was the brother of Aunt Dorothy and the uncle of Ralph. I asked more questions, but my mother had given me all the information she had. If it were anybody else, I might have almost believed it—but Ralph. Ralph was indestructible. He climbed the highest trees, dove off the biggest rocks. We were the same age, but he did everything a little bit better than I did—and a lot more flamboyantly.
by Don Metzler
Murder in a high school auditorium? When Ralph Harrison is found sprawled across the hard wooden seatbacks at the base of the balcony, his neck broken, the incident is dismissed as an unfortunate accident.
But Gary Blanchard, Ralph's cousin who lives in a neighboring small town 30 miles away, suspects a cover-up. Ralph, Gary speculates, was too good an athlete to have landed so awkwardly for a fall like this to have killed him... unless he was completely off balance from having been pushed. But Gary must keep his doubts to himself, as from a distance there seems to be no way for him to collect any information about the incident, beyond the official published version of what happened.
But six months later, during the first two weeks of Gary's senior year, he finds himself expelled from his high school. He goes to stay with his aunt and uncle (Ralph's parents) and transfers to Ralph's school. Within a few days of his enrollment there, he begins to surreptitiously quiz his new classmates for their impressions regarding Ralph's deadly fall. Initially Gary hears nothing out of the ordinary, and he begins to question whether his theory that Ralph may have been pushed from the balcony is nothing but an odd fantasy – invented, perhaps, because of the difficulty he is experiencing in accepting his cousin's death.
Gary also meets another cousin, Ed Drucquer, of whom he had previously been but peripherally aware. Ed's family had recently arrived in the States from England, and the family connection is a bit hazy as far as Gary is concerned. But Ed does have some interesting family history to relate, if it is to be believed. It seems that during the early part of the 19th century a common ancestor was compelled to flee Holland for England under mysterious circumstances. Further, there are tales of a priceless diamond necklace that once belonged to Dutch royalty, and has not been seen for generations.
Does the necklace still exist? Did it ever exist? And in any event, what is the connection between Ralph's death and Ed Drucquer's fantastic version of their shared family history?
Billed as "a 1950s mystery," I wasn't sure what to expect from The Hayloft. The setting, a rural high school in upstate New York during the McCarthy era, made me wonder if this would be a novel that was aimed at juvenile readers. But just a few pages in, I decided otherwise. Yes, the leading characters are all teenagers, the adult characters for the most part assuming supporting roles. But the tone of the narrative does not seem to be directed toward young readers, and the depth of the human relationships portrayed is anything but "juvenile." In fact, as something of a period piece, this story is likelier to appeal to the reader who is old enough to remember the 1950s, rather than to young people for whom Joseph McCarthy and bomb shelters are things taught in American history classes: topics from a bygone era.
I found The Hayloft to be a deceptively fast-paced story. The somewhat bucolic setting tended to lull me into thinking that there was little action taking place. Then I would glance at the page marker and discover that I had just read 50 pages or more without realizing that any time at all had passed. And that is one of the hallmarks of good fiction, is it not? That the narrative flows so seamlessly and holds one's interest so thoroughly, that the reader loses track of time.
The characters are complete, realistic and well-drawn: from the high school principal who displays hints of pedophilia, to Sylvia, the teenage activist and would-be conscience for the entire student body. The prose is clean and readable, and the story is nicely constructed. I would highly recommend The Hayloft.
Reviewed by Caryn St.Clair for Mystery Morgue
In The Hayloft, Cook has spun a tale helping baby boomers to remember that not everything from our childhood was innocent. The Hayloft brings back the nostalgia of a time when children were free to be children and when neighbors knew each other. But the book also forces the reader to remember some of the darker sides of the 1950's and early 1960's when innocent people's lives were ruined by McCarthy's hunt for Communists and middle America built bomb shelters in their backyards.
Set against this backdrop of conflicting times, The Hayloft has two different mysteries for the reader to follow involving the protagonist Gary Blanchard's family. Gary was kicked out of school and after some maneuvering on his parents' part; he is allowed to enroll in a neighboring school. The new school is the very same one his cousin Ralph attended until he fell to his death from the balcony in the gymnasium. Did Ralph really fall and if he did, was it truly an accident?
Also attending Carter High are Gary and Ralph's recently arrived English cousins, Ed and Kate Drucquer. Ed is fascinated by a family legend of a valuable necklace which had at one time belonged to the Royal family. The necklace was supposedly brought to this country by Ralph and Gary's grandparents when they emigrated. Though the story is dismissed by everyone in Gary's family as a myth, Ed is obsessed with finding the necklace. Does the necklace actually exist? Did Ralph know where it was hidden?
Cook has the details in this book just right. Having grown up in that era, in a small Midwestern town I felt like I had been transported back to my childhood. I knew people with bomb shelters and haylofts and spent time playing in both. The bomb shelters are every bit as creepy feeling as described in the book and the haylofts every bit as fun, complete with forts, slides and tunnels built out of the hay bales.
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