July. Peak summer, at last. A long holiday weekend ahead. Escapist book season is here. What are you reading, and why?
Being a journalist, books are constantly pitched at me. Most are easily allowed to fly past without swinging. “This book is a must-read for all who want to understand the current crisis of identity and the importance of reaffirming European and in particular Swiss democratic traditions…”
But “On Skein of Death” by Allie Pleiter caught my attention, for two reasons.
First, it’s a mystery set in a yarn shop. You might recall that five years ago, staring into the abyss of the Donald Trump presidency, I took up knitting, hoping it might be a distraction from the gathering disaster.
Knitting proved harder than expected and I soon gave up. But not before several visits to Three Bags Full, the local yarn store, which seemed a perfect setting for a mystery. That might require some explanation. Whenever I visit a cactus show at the Botanic Garden, I amuse myself imagining that the quiet, pale succulent society members, when not in public hovering over their beloved prickly pears and saguaros, are privately at each other’s throats, riven with conflict, betrayal and death. Something like that.
Second, the author lives in a western suburb.
Pleiter grew up in New England, came here to go to Northwestern, as a theater major, then ended up in fundraising. She started writing professionally on a dare.
”The bulk of my career is in category romance,” said Pleiter, who has written 50 books and can have four in the works at any given time. “I’m such a passionate knitter. I’ve been putting knitting characters in my books for years. It’s part of my brand.”
A yarn company was looking to start a knitting-based mystery series.
“A colleague said, ‘You really ought to do this.’ I discovered I really enjoyed it. I loved the intellectual challenge of creating the mystery to be solved,” Pleiter said. “It’s fun to flex new muscles. Romance is a really specific kind of book. It’s fun to go out and do something completely different.”
I enjoyed “Skein” on a few levels. There was of course the yarn store. Sleuth-to-be Libby Beckett is the owner of Y.A.R.N, a knitters’ paradise in Collinsville, Maryland.
“Every knitter dreams of opening up her ideal yarn shop, and this was a chance for me to live that daydream,” she said.
The book struck me as a portal into the fondest dreams of suburban American women — the inadequate husband banished offstage before the action even begins. The band of caring, dynamic friends. The merely irksome (as opposed to toxic and insane) mother. The loyal dog. The appealing but not handsy potential boyfriend. The steady stream of baked goods. As someone who binge-read dozens of Robert Parker novels, I know the background, what Spencer and Susan are cooking for dinner, is as important as the crime itself. If not more. Solving the crime can seem almost secondary.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘secondary,’” Pleiter said. “It holds equal weight to mystery. For cozy mysteries, it is as much about the character and her community and the relationships. Readers want to fall in love with the sleuth and revisit her again and again and again.”
“Cozy mystery” is the name of the subgenre.
“It’s a pretty standard mechanism,” she said. “The murder doesn’t take place on the page. The body is discovered. You don’t want it too grisly. There certainly are mysteries that tap into that. But people read cozies because they want something lighter. They don’t want to get into the mechanics of killing someone.”
I sure don’t. The action is set in motion with the arrival of Norwegian knitting pattern celebrity Perle Lonager. At the risk of applying thought to something that is meant to be accepted as a given (“These spells Hermione keeps casting, what is the physics behind them?”), I had to ask: Are there really rock star pattern designers?
“Well, I suppose ‘rock star’ is probably overstating it. There are designers who have a really passionate following.”
I couldn’t help trying to fact-check that, and was surprised what I found.
“We’ve done a few of those events at Three Bags Full,” said employee Adrienne Levin. “We had a woman who owns a yarn company in Denmark. We did a luncheon, where she did a fashion show and a meet-and-great and she signed some books.”
But nobody murdered?
“None were murdered, at least at our store,” said Levin. “None that I know of.”
I suppose I should squint hard and be critical, so readers know what they’re getting into. Allie Pleiter isn’t Scott Turrow. “On Skein of Death” isn’t “Presumed Innocent.” But I didn’t have to force myself to finish it and, being an author myself who breathlessly pores over reviews searching for the money shot, I have no trouble providing one. Ready?
“On Skein of Death” is a contemporary, well-written, fast-paced mystery set among the knitting needles, one that held my interest better than knitting itself did. Knitters will want to keep Allie Pleiter’s new book in their project bags for emotional succor when their fingers tire and the supply of butterscotch blondies runs low. The second Riverbank Knitting Mystery, “Knit or Dye Trying” is out in February, and I suppose I’ll have to read it. It’s easier than trying to finish that green scarf in the bottom of my closet.