Farberville, Arkansas is normally a quiet college town, where bookseller Claire Malloy tends her small store and raises her somewhat dramatic teenage daughter Caron. But this week, it's gone a bit out of control. A local group of activists calling themselves the Farberville Green Party is protesting a developer's plan to remove a copse of trees by having retired schoolteacher Miss Emily Parchester camp out in one of them while chained to it by the ankle. While concerned about the aged Miss Parchester's vigil in the tree, Claire isn't able to talk her down-and if that wasn't turmoil enough, a baby is left on Claire's doorstep with a note from his mother asking her to care for him for a few days.
While trying to track down the mother, Claire tries to avoid alerting either the authorities or the local gossips, but both efforts are doomed to failure. When Claire is sighted buying diapers, the unlikely rumor that her daughter has an illegitimate child runs rampant in Caron's high school. And when Claire does track down the mother of the child, it is because the teenager has been arrested for the murder of her own father - who is the local developer at the center of the controversy surrounding the trees.
Unconvinced that the baby's mother is really responsible, and juggling feedings and diaperings for the first time in fifteen-some years, Claire decides that the only way to rescue Caron's reputation and the baby's mother - not to mention coaxing Miss Parchester down out of the tree - is to uncover the truth behind the murder.
In Hess's 15th lighthearted mystery to feature bookseller sleuth Claire Malloy (after 2000's A Conventional Corpse), Emily Parchester, a lady of "a certain age," has been persuaded by the Farberville, Ark., Green Party to chain herself to a platform in a tree to protest the planned construction of a new housing development. On arriving home, Claire learns that her 16-year-old daughter, Caron, has taken in a young guest the baby born to a mother known only as Wal-Mart. While feeding the baby and watching the local news for coverage of Miss Parchester's vigil, Claire is stunned to learn that the developer of the tract the Green Party is trying to stop has been found dead, and that the infant's mother has been brought in for questioning. Claire undertakes to get Miss Parchester out of the tree and reunite the mother and child, despite the repercussions for both her bookstore and her personal life. Farberville boasts a large population of eccentric characters, many of whom are old friends by now. (Fans of Margaret Maron's Judge Deborah Knott will appreciate "Judge Derby Nott," a tip of the hat from one master to another.) With her wry asides, Claire makes a most engaging narrator. The author deftly juggles the various plot strands, letting the local news reporter fill in the action in which Claire is uninvolved. The surprising denouement comes off with clat. FYI:Winner of the American Mystery Award, Hess is also the author ofMaggody and the Moonbeams (Forecasts, May 28, 2001) and other titles in her Maggody mystery series.