September 7, 2009


In Keep Still, the fifth entry in Eleanor Taylor Bland’s Marti MacAlister series, the abused mother of an abused eight-year-old girl teaches her that to avoid the abuse from her father and later her older brother she must “keep still.”

Homicide detectives Marti and Vik have no idea when they investigate the deaths of Sophia Admunds, an elderly lady who broke her neck falling down basement steps, and Liddy Fields, who drowned in a motel swimming pool, that the two deaths will lead to the investigation of the disappearance of eight-year-old Natalie Beatty.

Marti and Vik investigate the possibility of matricide in the Sophia Admunds case. Policewoman Lupe Torres, assigned to help them, is given the Fields case to obtain information about her. She locates Tyrell and Tyree Laws, two sisters who were acquainted with Fields because Tyrell worked with her. Tyrell tells her how Liddy loved and got along well with kids but not with adults. Later, Tyrell is killed while jogging. As if three murders weren’t enough for the overworked trio, Campania Ortega is found dead in her garage.

At the time of the investigations, Natalie has been missing for seven years. All four victims had had contact with the Beatty family and had tried to help eight-year-old Natalie. Based on this revelation, Marti and Vik conclude that finding and questioning each member of the dysfunctional Beatty family is the key to cracking not only the four homicide cases but whether Natalie is alive or dead.

With TV psychics helping TV police authorities and real psychics occasionally helping real police, it is no surprise that Bland introduces a psychic, Ann Miller, to help find Natalie. Nor is Vik’s skepticism surprising. Marti’s belief in psychics goes back to her childhood in Chicago:
"Marti had grown up knowing half a dozen women who could ‘see.’ Miss Lucy could tell you if you were pregnant before you missed a period. Miss Dolly knew if you had sickness and approximately where it was. Aunt Rosetta Grey knew when death was coming. And, like Alma Miller, Mother Henderson had dreams."
I’m not always comfortable with the supernatural in detective stories, but in this case, it works.

In all of the Bland novels, Slim and Cowboy, the two vice cops who share an office with Marti and Vik, are the source of humor. They can’t resist the opportunity to tease Lupe, the new occupant. Cowboy gets a real surprise when he tells Lupe to make coffee. Unlike Marti, who sometimes simply ignores them, Lupe grabs the can of coffee, empties the grinds on the floor, and suggests Cowboy get a broom from the closet. This battle between the sexes, in addition to adding humor, also establishes the character of Lupe as a strong woman who takes no “crap” from the “he-men.”

Bland usually shows the culture or social aspects of Lincoln Prairie through Marti’s eyes. Occasionally, she presents the town through Vik’s eyes. The native son explains the high crime rate:
“It’s the drugs and gangs and the general availability of firearms added to the usual greed, fear, hate, and anger.” He sounded sad. “Town used to be like one big neighborhood.”
Only in this case, it is not drugs that brings death to several people, but human evil.

No novel about a female detective is much fun without some romance. Keep Still advances the growing relationship between Marti and Ben, the fireman paramedic whom she is dating. She doesn’t want someone like her deceased husband Johnny, but “something”...she hasn’t “had before.” Preferably “something permanent, something she could rely on.” Ben’s son Mike and Marti’s son Theo are close in age and close friends. Is marriage in their future?

Bland’s handling of the child abuse theme is well done, but the connection of the Admunds’s case to the disappearance of Natalie is rather thin.