Reviewed by David Kinzer
Miss Julia is the protagonist of a series of popular novels, a Southern widow of considerable wealth, relative age, and the Presbyterian persuasion. She doesn’t solve mysteries so much as become embroiled in the chaotic events of her neighbors’ lives. Her latest adventure is documented in Miss Julia to the Rescue.
David Kinzer is your reviewer. He’s a 22 year-old Jewish male from south-eastern Michigan, about as far away from what he assumes to be the target audience for this series as possible.
That’s not to give the impression that he expected to dislike Miss Julia to the Rescue. Like most, he loves a good mystery. Plus, a review by Paul H. Yarbrough of this publication recommends the Miss Julia series, even taunting that “If you haven’t read any of Ann Ross’s Miss Julia series you have missed a clever protagonist and delightful character with whom you could have become quite close.”
Perhaps if your reviewer started off with the book Yarbrough read, Miss Julia Rocks the Cradle, he’d have come to the same positive opinion of the Miss Julia series. Especially in the first fifty or so pages, Miss Julia to the Rescue progresses at an enjoyable, leisurely pace. Miss Julia’s husband, Sam, goes on a church trip to “The Holy Land”—that it’s referred to exclusively as such is a nice detail and hints at the rewards which Ross’s precise sense of place has to offer—leaving Miss Julia to busy herself by remodeling her house.
The primary mystery is suitably intriguing as well, a barely audible phone call from family friend and private detective J.D. Pickens, who asks for help before getting kicked off the line by a threatening voice. The book slows when Miss Julia drives off to West Virginia to investigate J.D’s disappearance with her friend, Hazel Marie. Since Miss Julia insists that Hazel Marie bring a disguise, it should be clear to readers how they’re going to solve their dilemma and get Mr. Pickens released; unfortunately, it takes days for the characters to realize it.
But the real problem with the book has little to do with how undercooked the suspense elements are. Ross is less concerned with this narrative, which is ultimately abandoned in the novel’s second half, than with her theme, religion. It’s a touch heavy for a book whose most successful portions investigate the best ways to compliment blush bathroom tiles, but Ross’s worldview is expressed with off-putting coherency.
As Miss Julia summarizes at the end of the novel, there are two religious groups she meets over the course of the novel whose views clash with her own and whose legitimacy she immediately, vehemently rejects. The first is an evangelical Christian denomination, the ominously generic-sounding “Church of God,” which uses a snake as a prop during their service, to the disgust of Miss Julia and Hazel Marie. Their visit to the Church is only a brief episode and ultimately unimportant to the plot, but it is returned to numerous times over the course of the book, taking a place of prominence that only makes sense if the reader is a committed ophidiophobe.
The second religious group, the Church of Body Modification, becomes the focus of the novel’s second half. Miss Julia views its members with a mixture of pity and contempt throughout since they all have piercings or tattoos. That none of these congregants has much of a connection to the previous mystery could add to the novel’s laid-back charms if these sections didn’t sound so painfully out-of-touch. Personally, I’ve never considered getting so much as an earring, but I must concede that encouraging your congregants to get a tongue stud seems rather piddling compared to the lunacy of a real cult leader like Warren Jeffs or even L. Ron Hubbard.
As might be expected from a proper Southern lady, Miss Julia doesn’t take kindly to the Church of Body Modification or to its leader, Agnes Whitman, whose gaged ears have Miss Julia confusing her with “a Zulu chieftain in a National Geographic magazine.” The strange thing is that rather than become inured, Miss Julia grows more disgusted with each new tattoo she sees, with reactions crescendoing from a frozen smile to an audible gasp to the declaration that a woman with leg and arm tattoos “made my teeth hurt and my skin crawl.” At one point, she rejects a drink because it was offered to her by a man with a pierced nose.
Although Miss Julia’s abhorrence may seem fitting given her setting, class and age, the fact that Ross confirms all her fears by making the Church an aggressive cult is downright uncomfortable, not to mention silly given how innocuous the cult’s supposed menace actually appears. Much suspense is rung from whether the cult has designs on a young carpenter named Adam Waites, and at the risk of spoiling some of it, let me say that the Church ultimately proves to be no more of a threat than would a grade schooler with a safety pin.
The drama regarding Adam points toward an unsettling ugliness at work beneath the surface here. In her fight to free Adam from his carpentry job with Agnes, Miss Julia essentially abandons another associate, Tucker Caldwell, who similarly comes under the cult’s sway and for whom Miss Julia never shows a hint of concern. The stated reason for this is that Tucker is “cocky enough to take care of himself,” but, of course, if we are to believe that he’s being brainwashed by a cult, that doesn’t ring true. Perhaps it has more to do with Tucker’s short stature, since Ross repeatedly returns to it as a subject of comic relief, having Miss Julia speculate, for instance, that Tucker’s pleated lacks were “most likely purchased in a boy’s department.” Or maybe Miss Julia cares more about Adam’s fate since he comes from a well-known Christian family. Or there could simply be a limit to Miss Julia’s misguided maternal affections.
Whatever the cause, Miss Julia comes across as someone strangely prone to intolerance, and Ross constructs Abbotville to encourage that intolerance. “It’s remarkable how far some people will go to avoid a church service done decently and in order,” Miss Julia summarizes to Lloyd, the pubescent boy who serves as her surrogate child. Lloyd agrees with Miss Julia’s assessment, albeit with the proud disclosure of “Course I’ve never given much thought to either one,” before sipping his sweet tea and talking more about his days at tennis camp to the elderly woman with whom he shares an inordinate bond. I wonder what Miss Julia will say about him in a few years.
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