"This group of eccentric characters living in a small town environment will elicit laughter and tears."
Reviewed by Suan Wilson
Posted March 28, 2011
Mystery Amateur Sleuth | Mystery Woman Sleuth
Wisconsin journalist AnnaLise Griggs receives a phone call
from a flustered friend in North Carolina informing that
her mother made an almost tragic mistake at the local blood
drive. She nonchalantly drained three pints of blood from a
society matron. AnnaLise hurries home to find her mother,
Daisy, rational but occasionally adding odd comments to
their conversation. While AnnaLise tries to make sense of
her mom's health, she visits with old friends stirring up
good and bad memories among the group.
When the former sheriff is found murdered and that death is
quickly followed by the murder of a Japanese businessman,
AnnaLise dives into the investigation. She loves a good
mystery and AnnaLise does not want to face her mother's
problems. Her search opens up old gossip and wounds that
the killer wants kept secret. Suddenly, she and her mother
become targets. AnnaLise races to expose the killer before
Daisy becomes the next victim.
Ms. Balzo, author of the Maggy Thorsen mysteries, begins a
new series with a group of eccentric and quirky characters
in a small town environment that elicits laughter and tears
as it draws readers into their complicated world. The plot
offers plenty of surprises and it will catch readers
completely unaware at the startling conclusion.
The first in a new series by the author of the Maggy
Life on Sutherton's MainÂ Street has always been
inexplicably hazardous. Like the student who bet he could
paddle a beer-filled ice chest across the lake. And lost.
Not to mention the occasional tourist who wandered into the
mountains, never to wander back out. But the dayÂ Daisy
Griggs siphoned three pints of blood from poor Mrs.
Bradenham seemed to set a new standard. Now more and more
people are dying and unless Daisyâ€™s daughter, AnnaLise
Griggs, can figure out why, her mother may be next.
Life on Main Street has always been inexplicably
hazardous, no matter the season. The skier who choked on
her gum halfway down Deer Slope, arriving at the bottom
still standing, if not breathing. The fishermen squashed
like road-killed possums by a Toyota Land Cruiser against
the front of Lucky's Bait Shop. The skinny-dipping White
Tail Lodge hostess, dead from hypothermia. And that didn't
count the odd tourist or two each year wandering into the
mountains, never to wander back out to our High Country
version of civilization called Sutherton, North Carolina.
Nonetheless, the day Daisy Griggs reportedly siphoned
nearly three pints of blood out of poor Mrs Bradenham
during the town's annual volunteer blood drive is generally
acknowledged to stand above them all.
It's also what was sending me, Daisy's daughter
AnnaLise, back to Main Street .. .
AnnaLise Griggs stood in a Wisconsin courthouse when she
picked up, on the first ring of her cellphone, the call
every adult child dreads.
'AnnieLeez? This is Mama,' her mother's oldest friend
said on the other end of the line.
Mama was the only person in Sutherton â€“ or anywhere
else â€“ who seemed constitutionally incapable of pronouncing
AnnaLise the correct way: 'Ah-nah-lease'. But, as surrogate-
daughter had all her life, AnnaLise let her surrogate-
mother's butchering of the given name ride. 'I just have a
second, Mama. Is everything all right?'
'Pretty much. Excepting Daisy, she went and drained all
the blood out of Mrs Bradenham.'
Well, maybe not the call every adult child dreads.
'My mother what?' AnnaLise yelled.
Other occupants of the century-old, cavernous lobby
turned, en masse, to give the newspaper reporter a dirty
look. They themselves might be junkies or prostitutes,
purse-snatchers or axe-murderers, but blare into a
cellphone and everybody becomes Miss Manners.
AnnaLise pivoted to face the dirty beige wall, still
keeping one eye on a courtroom door in case Urban County
District Attorney Benjamin Rosewood emerged through it. The
prosecutor had just filed charges against a sixteen-year-
old girl whose car skidded on wet pavement and jumped a
curb killing her friend.
Tragic, yes. But vehicular homicide? Not in AnnaLise's
mind, but reporters weren't supposed to have opinions.
Which is why AnnaLise buried hers in a personal journal,
thereby keeping the top of her head from blowing off.
At least, until now.
'Your mother,' Phyllis 'Mama' Balisteri continued, 'she
was working the blood drive like always, her being a
lobotomist and all. But Daisy made a terrible, terrible
mistake this time.'
Despite her occupationally imposed if personality-driven
need to edit , AnnaLise also let ride 'lobotomist'
versus 'phlebotomist' and cut to the car chase: 'Is Mrs
'Oh, sure.' If anything, Mama sounded a bit
disappointed. 'But there was blood all over the floor from
running out the tube. Daisy up and cut it in the wrong
place, you understand?'
AnnaLise didn't understand, but Mama wasn't going to
give her a chance to request any clarification. 'Henrietta â€“
the other lobotomist? â€“ she said it looked to her like
three, maybe four pints.'
Three to four pints? Didn't the average person have only
nine or ten total? AnnaLise tented her forehead against the
beige brick, trying to ignore both the explicit graffiti on
it and the heightened activity in the courthouse lobby. She
did register two videographers lift their cameras and train
them on the arraignment session door.
'Where's Daisy now?' AnnaLise asked in a tone that
already sounded tired, even to her own ear.
'Don't you worry,' Phyllis said. 'I didn't let the
chief's police boys take your mother away.'
Assuming 'the chief' was still Chuck Greystone,
AnnaLise's high-school sweetheart, he certainly shouldn't
have, at least not without calling her.
'She's here at the restaurant with me,' Mama
continued. 'But Dr Stanton, he says Daisy might not be
Mama lowered her voice. 'You know, like . . . in the
AnnaLise didn't answer, waiting one, two beats, as DA
Ben Rosewood burst from the courtroom and, throwing
AnnaLise an apparently offhand glance, exited the lobby via
another door, all without breaking stride. Shouting
questions, a group of her fellow reporters became more like
a pack of wolves, running their quarry to earth.
Feeling even smaller than her five feet of height,
AnnaLise stayed where she was, a human lean-to against the
building's scarred wall.
'I'm coming home, Mama,' she said softly into the
phone. 'Tell Daisy I'm coming home.'
Friday, Sept 3, 7 p.m. On the road
Stopped at the Best Western near Middlesboro, Kentucky
after a long day of driving. About to order pizza for
dinner, then early to bed. Tomorrow, I cross into Tennessee
and then Sweet Home North Carolina, arriving Sutherton
maybe mid morning. I'm trying to look forward to Mama's
cooking and not fixate on what else might be awaiting me.
For nearly as long as AnnaLise could remember, and even
after leaving Sutherton for college, she had called her own
mother Daisy, and Phyllis Balisteri, Mama.
Half the reason for that was staring the journalist in
the face as she waited on Saturday morning while a black
Ford Excursion with Florida license plates backed out of a
lined space. Above it, the sign read 'Mama Philomena's' in
two-foot-high, neon letters.
The original 'Mama' had been Philomena Balisteri,
Phyllis's mom. When Philomena died, her daughter took over
the restaurant bordering on Main Street, the boulevard
rimming the south shore of Lake Sutherton. 'Boulevard',
however, was probably too grand a label for the two-lane
road with angle-parking on one side and the revered statue
commemorating a loyal, local dog on the minimal median
Most of the businesses stood on the same side of Main
Street as Mama Philomena's, their front windows facing only
the beach and Sal's Taproom across the way. Think of Lake
Sutherton â€“ the body of water as opposed to Sutherton, the
town â€“ as a figure eight, but with a withered northern loop
nearest the mountains. While Main Street lived up to its
name, other paved tributaries â€“ like Church, First and
Second Streets â€“ fed into it and disappeared.
The driver of the aging but well-preserved Excursion was
barely inching backwards from the space, and AnnaLise
fought her mounting impatience with the out-of-stater.
Growing up in Sutherton, she'd learned that its pace of
life was dictated by the ebb and flow â€“ not to mention
frequent confusion â€“ of the seasonal population fleeing the
oppressive heat and humidity of South Carolina, Georgia and
'Half-backs', they were called, because, as Mama put
it, 'They're northerners who go south for the weather, and
then come halfway back.'
Half-backs, flatlanders, summer folk â€“ whatever you
called the crowds that descended upon the cool, clear lake
and ascended into the cooler, surrounding mountains â€“ they
were the very reason the town continued to thrive, even
during tough times.
Come summer, the population of Sutherton quintupled from
a little less than a thousand to 'a little more than
bearable' as AnnaLise's high-school friend, Sheree Pepper,
would put it.
Winters also brought crowds, but of skiers. There
weren't quite the number of tourists as in the summer, but
the snow-seekers seemed to take up more room on the
streets, wearing their down parkas and armed with skis and
poles as they headed toward Sutherton Mountain.
'All tourists, all the time' â€“ another Pepperism.
Not that AnnaLise's friend could reasonably complain.
Sheree owned the Sutherton Inn on the far east-end of Main
Street. Her thirteen rooms were booked solid the entirety
of both seasons. Today was the start of Labor Day weekend
and beds in Sheree's inn, stools at Sal's Taproom, or
booths in Mama Philomena's would be even tougher to get
than parking spaces on Main Street.
But AnnaLise hadn't lived in Sutherton â€“ nor the High
Country in general â€“ since starting at the University of
Wisconsin, and patience was no longer a virtue of hers. She
cautiously reversed her gas-conscious Mitsubishi Spyder
convertible to give the Excursion more maneuvering room.
The angle-parking on Main Street was always good for a
daily fender bender or two as the summer folk tried to back
onto it. The less charitable of the natives, nursing beers
at sidewalk tables outside Sal's Tap, took bets on which
vehicle was going to get nailed next. Mercedes and BMWs
brought a special joy to the experience.
As AnnaLise finally wheeled into the space, she cringed
at the 'vroom-vroom' caused by a small hole in her muffler
that had worsened on the thirteen-hour drive from the upper
Midwest. Climbing out of the Spyder, she gave Main Street
the once-over, glad â€“ even relieved â€“ to see that it was
pretty much the same as she remembered.
With one exception.
Until this past spring, most of the ground-floor
storefront on the far corner had been Griggs Market . A
small grocery and deli, the family business had become
increasingly less profitable over the last few years.
Finally, Daisy had thrown in the towel and declared herself
retired at the age of fifty. She rented the retail space â€“
but not her home, an over-and-under apartment in the same
building â€“ to Tucker Stanton, son of the town's doctor, and
after months of renovation, Tucker's 'Torch', an upscale
nightclub, was now open.
Turning back to Mama Philomena's â€“ or just plain Mama's,
as everybody called it â€“ AnnaLise could see her mother
through the restaurant's big, plate-glass window.
Daisy was perched on a step stool next to the cash
register, feet dangling. The old place didn't have booster
seats or high chairs. Kids who couldn't reach the tables
sat on the step stool or, when that wasn't available, a
pile of ancient phone books.
When AnnaLise was little, she'd climb quietly right to
where Daisy was now and watch Mama fill plastic Moo-Cow
cream pitchers by twisting off the heads and pouring cream
down the plastic cows' throats. Then, if the pitchers were
tipped, cream would come streaming out of the animals'
Which had struck young AnnaLise, who preferred her
dishware anatomically correct, as just plain wrong. She'd
searched the undersides of the creamers for udders and,
finding none, resigned herself to the fact that adults
apparently were fine with plastic cows spitting into their
The Moo-Cow pitchers were considered vintage these days,
however, and, as they disappeared at the hands of sticky-
fingered customers, Mama had locked up the last three â€“
pitchers, not patrons â€“ in a glass display case along with
other treasures beneath her cash register.
'Out! Now!' The barked order interrupted AnnaLise's
reminiscences as a man with the itchy look of a corporate
bigwig embarrassed to find himself just another schmuck on
vacation with the wife and kids, pushed out the door ahead
of his family.
A second man, about forty with tousled hair, olive
complexion and a local newspaper folded under one arm, had
been about to enter Mama's, but stepped politely aside to
let the squabbling parade pass by.
AnnaLise, intending to follow him in, leaned out to
catch the door as it started to swing closed in his face.
The stranger smiled his thanks and waved for AnnaLise to
precede him, but she shook her head, preferring to take a
moment to absorb the sounds and smells that were uniquely
Mama's before . . . well, before she actually saw Mama. And
Or, to be more precise, before the two women actually
Shielded from their view, AnnaLise closed her eyes. The
trÃ¨s tacky electric chime on the door. The scent of rye
toast and black coffee. The clatter of heavy silverware on
When AnnaLise opened her eyes, she was somehow in
kindergarten again. After school, Daisy and Mama at the
cash register, their backs toward her.
'Meh-tass-ta-sized.' Daisy annunciating each syllable as
though it were a word all its own. AnnaLise didn't
recognize the term, of course, but she heard the fear in
her mother's voice.
AnnaLise's father had been sick for what seemed like her
entire childhood. In fact, the daughter's first vivid
memory was not of home or parents, but a room. A tiny,
shiny room filled with black vinyl chairs and magazine-
strewn tables, a television in one corner and a coffee-urn
in the other, the acrid smell of the brew not quite
covering the human and antiseptic stew AnnaLise would
always thereafter associate with death.
AnnaLise always sensed her father was just on loan to
the small family. That, someday, they would have to give
'It'll be all right,' Mama had said that day at the
restaurant, draping an arm around Daisy's shivering
shoulders and giving them a squeeze.
'But AnnaLise is so little. And the store. Maybe I
'You hush.' Mama put her left index finger to Daisy's
'No.' If Daisy was as lost as AnnaLise had ever seen
her, Mama seemed at her most determined. 'You're not alone,
you hear? You and me, we'll make it right. The two of us.'
And they had, somehow. Two women collaborating over
nearly a quarter century to keep both Mama Philomena's and
Griggs Market afloat. To keep AnnaLise afloat, as well.
And, in return, the five-year-old had done her best to
be brave, to be good. And she'd never, ever, told them what
she'd overheard, and instinctively understood, that long-
The man in front of AnnaLise moved toward a booth and
Daisy and Mama caught sight of her. AnnaLise took a
reflexive step back as the uncertain past became the
equally uncertain present. The confused look in her
mother's eyes was unnerving enough, but it wasn't as scary
as what AnnaLise saw in Phyllis's. Daisy's in trouble
and even Mama doesn't know what to do.
And, though AnnaLise wasn't sure, either, she knew it
was her turn to keep them afloat.
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