Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Forgery, frauds and MURDER
John Billheimer writes engaging mystery "Stonewall Jackson's Elbow" by John Billheimer; Thomson Gale; 375 pp.; $25.95
by Don Kazak
Nicholas Jensen
Portola Valley writer

John Billheimer has written
the latest in his series
of Owen Allison mysteries
set in Billheimer’s native
West Virginia. At the
center of the action is
a museum of fakes and
frauds — among them:
Stonewall Jackson's
elbow, an autographed
Mickey Mantle card and
Judy Garland's rubyslippers.

The president of the bank in Contrary, West Virginia, is a genial, helpful man whose small bank has soared to success.

But when Burt Caldwell runs his car off a mountain road and is killed, federal bank examiners move in, audit the books, and discover that $750,000 million is missing.

Caldwell's aide, protesting her innocence, goes to prison. And when the feds start to sell off some of the items in Caldwell's Museum of Fakes and Frauds, more people go missing or get killed and investigator Owen Allison tries to figure out what's happening.

Portola Valley writer John Billheimer has written another engaging, intelligent Owen Allison mystery, fraught with danger and flavored with down-home common sense.

Nothing is as it seems in good mysteries. "Stonewall Jackson's Elbow" adds a layer of complexity by trying to separate the frauds and forgeries from the real thing in the oddball museum of fakes that Caldwell had accumulated over the years.

How much is that 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie baseball card worth? But wait, it's also autographed, skyrocketing its value. But wait again, is the autograph a forgery? And wait still again, is the card a phony too?

There's a sly sense of humor in the idea of a museum of fakes and frauds, and Billheimer delights in telling stories of real frauds to begin each chapter.

The title, by the way, comes from the story of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson being accidentally killed by his own pickets on a darkening evening during the Civil War. His arm had been amputated and, Billheimer's story goes, someone claimed to have kept Stonewall Jackson's elbow as a historical artifact for 150 years. True? No, but it's a good yarn.

Owen Allison, by the way, had been living in Palo Alto when his business as a risk analyst failed and sent him back East, also ending his marriage. And when his elderly mother encountered health difficulties in his West Virginia hometown, he moved there to help take care of her.

Billheimer is a native West Virginian and writes knowingly about his home state in his series of Owen Allison books.

The characters may talk in a homespun way, but don't underestimate them.

And Billheimer has the back-home inflections down pat.

One character, describing the late banker Caldwell, remarked that he wasn't exceptional, but for his loyalty. "Man's common as cowflop," the character said, "but he'd wrassle a live chainsaw for his people."

"Stonewall Jackson's Elbow" starts with an auction of items from Caldwell's Museum of Fakes and Frauds, being conducted by the government to try to recoup some of the missing $750,000 million.

But one of the top bidders for the more expensive items is killed shortly after the auction, her car going off a mountain road in the same place Caldwell had died. Allison gets involved because he was at the auction, too, bidding on and winning a shoebox full of vintage baseball cards.

Caldwell started his museum of fraudulent historical items and paintings out of an odd obsession, but it turns out that he mixed in real items with the fakes. That made the mysterious death of the woman bidder interesting, since Allison discovered she had been killed instead of accidentally driving off a mountain road. And then he and the police chief discover that the dead woman had been a prison cellmate of Caldwell's aide, who had been convicted after Caldwell's death because of the missing bank funds.

The dead woman had been bidding at the auction at the aide's instructions to try to buy the items from the Museum of Fakes and Frauds that weren't fakes.

Allison and the police chief try to unravel a deepening mystery of fakes and a murder when Allison is almost killed.

It turns out that Allison and the cops aren't just trying to deduce the real from the fake baseball cards and other items, but also people who have taken on new identities and aren't who they say they are.

Determining the genuine from fakes fuels the story and confounds Allison and the police chief. They start out investigating what seems to be a car crash but turns out to be a murder, and a part of scheme that is far more complicated than it initially seemed.

Along the way, Allison falls for the woman who is curator of the Museum of Fakes and Frauds. She goes missing at the height of the story, driving a frenzied Allison to try to find her.

And he's also taking care of his mom, a sweet but sometimes forgetful elderly woman who writes down his phone messages and berates herself when she forgets to.

After one of her lapses, Allison tries to comfort her, saying that everyone is losing brain cells at an alarming rate.

"It's not the cells I've lost that worry me," she replied. "The ones that are left seem to be grouping for a mass escape."

Billheimer's Allison figures it all out in the end, but getting there is the treat for readers.

Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at dkazak@paweekly.com.

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