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Color Tour

Shirley Murray - July 20th, 2006
Calvin Trillin once observed that mysteries are God’s gift to travelers. Reading Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen mysteries in Italy, Julie Smith’s police detective Skip Langdon in New Orleans, or Nevada Barr in the national parks, gives us an insider’s feel for the mood of the area.
Up north travelers and residents experienced this with Aaron Stander’s first mystery novel, Summer People. Not since Robert Wilson’s U.P.thriller, Crooked Tree, was I so totally immersed in a Northern Michigan setting. A six-year hiatus for a Ray Elkins sequel was rewarded this month with the arrival of Color Tour. Once again, we sink into an area both familiar and mysterious. Stander’s Cedar County with its haunting sand dunes, woodlands and Lake Michigan -- alternately raging and serene -- shape and shade every character on the Color Tour canvass. “The murders are all fiction,” Stander says, “but the locations are real. I can take you to the scene of every murder.”
Doug Stanton, author of New York Times bestseller, In Harm’s Way, expresses it well. “Stander evokes these north woods and Lake Michigan with a poet’s eye and the dramas of the human heart with a detective’s wry unflinching touch.”
As Stander’s sequel opens, Cedar County resident, Nora Jennings ambles along the dusky dune shore near her cottage with her dogs, Prince Hal and Falstaff. The elderly widow exchanges pleasantries with a young teacher and her boyfriend. Early the next morning after a savage storm, Nora is again exercising her dogs, when Hal’s persistent barking reveals a grisly scene. She discovers the bodies of the young couple she met the night before. A frantic call brings Sheriff Ray Elkins and his deputy Sue Lawrence to the scene.
The investigation moves quickly to Leiston School, a private local boarding school in Cedar County, where the popular slain teacher was employed. Headmaster Ian Warrington and staff, each with secrets and foibles, jealousies and grudges, are implicated. Further puzzling murders and related deaths result in dead-ends for the beleaguered sheriff, and heightened suspense for the reader.
For those who missed Summer People, Sheriff Ray Elkins is a Cedar County native who returned home from his position as an English professor, and stayed on to run for sheriff. Stander puts much of his own quirky personality into his protagonist. Ray has a penchant for poetry, good literature, music and wine; he has Zimmerman’s Deli/Gourmet Shop in Ann Arbor send cheese and sandwiches to the northern woods.
Ray’s childhood friend and gourmet cook, Mark, who quit his high-powered job in New York to live a less stressful life in Northern Michigan, paired up with Lisa in Summer People, Mark and Lisa satisfy Ray’s taste buds and need for local gossip. Lisa, a former Leiston boarding student, gives Ray her take on the staff and the new headmaster over dinner. Ray waxes introspective in his journal each evening. His deputy, friends and neighbors become people we come to know and care about, as they are frustrated by the unlikely turn of events in their small community.
Aaron Stander, has been a summer person for years, but moved permanently up north in the fall of 2000 after a career as a college Shakespeare professor, writing teacher, poet, consultant and writer of academic works. He teaches part time at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, and was the writer-in-residence this past year. His interests in kayaking, literature, academia, and police procedure are evident and add a dimension to place and character.
Stander describes the slain teacher’s bookcase—“Krakauer, several Stephen Kings, Jack Driscoll, Jim Harrison, Doug Peacock, Peter Matthiessen and Edward Abbey… the only poetry is a book by Judith Minty. But Updike’s last book, lots of Elmore Leonard’s recent stuff, Tony Hillerman, Dennis Lahane, Larry Beinhart, Carl Hiassen, and some vintage Chandler.” A bonus for any book discussion group.
Meanwhile, there’s a spark of romantic interest and a possible mysterious past shared by Ray Elkins and Sarah James, an administrative assistant at Leiston School. A foreshadowing of a California trip by Ray to sort out some personal history makes us wonder—With Summer People and Color Tour over, can winter be on the horizon?

 
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