Marta Randall’s 1993 Growing Light is a murder mystery. It was published under the pen name Martha Conley
Life in a small California town seemed nearly idyllic until a fatal car accident left Anne Munroe a widowed single mother. She needs a job. The small community offers few opportunities for employment. But there is at least one: the local firm Growing Light needs her technical editing skills.
The job does not come without problems.
Growing Light began as an agricultural software company. It was doing well … until self-aggrandizing blowhard woo-woo grifter George Ashby seized control of the company from ex-wife Lena. Under his guidance, Growing Light began offering a number of New Age nonsense products, none of which work. Ashby also runs the company as his personal fiefdom, hiring and firing people on a whim.
Anne’s fellow employees are a colourful collection of eccentrics, most of whom are ill-suited for their poorly defined roles. Anne, who is actually competent and experienced, is poor fit. Ashby almost immediately singles her out as his enemy of the week, yet another new hire destined to be fired almost as quickly as she was hired.
When Anne discovers that her boss is telling outrageous lies about her late husband, she storms into his office to confront him. She discovers that he is dead, stabbed.
The list of suspects is long. To know Ashby is to want to kill him. It’s quite the puzzler for local Sheriff Jackson, who has been promoted way past his level of competence. Jackson wants to solve the murder quickly. What better suspect than the woman who found the body?
This book was first published a generation ago, when computers were not quite as commonplace as they are today. The author must therefore infodump re computer workings. On the one hand, this is superfluous. Modern readers know a great deal more about computers than the readers of 1993. On the other hand, the setting depends to a great extent on computer tech of twenty-seven years ago, so perhaps modern readers do need some explanation1. Anyone here remember doing backups on floppy discs?
We are told that Growing Light (the company) loses money nine months out of twelve. I was surprised that it made any money at all. I suppose sales of its original software provide the necessary funds to prop up the Ashby regime. Still … agricultural software doesn’t seem as if it would be a profitable niche.
When I was reading for the Mystery Guild, I noted quite a few books in the “newly single woman making a new life in a small town” sub-genre. Is this genre still a thing? The essential elements of the sub-genre seem to be:
- woman lead;
- divorced or widowed;
- abandons big city career for the small town;
- finds new, more rewarding job in town;
- acquires a new beau (better than the old one if she’s divorced);
- adopts or fosters or mothers a kid;
- solves murders on the side.
Growing Light foreshadows this sub-genre in some ways. It departs from the sub-genre in that it takes a dim view of small-town life. Many readers want to believe that small-town life is better than urban life. This book’s Lake Harris County is, if not a dystopia, a mixed bag. Anne’s neighbors are genial but xenophobic; the sheriff is incompetent; the public-notary is pot-addled; the company’s accountant is uncomfortable with numbers.
Growing Light is a perfectly functional mystery, obfuscating the identity of the killer not because they were especially adept at covert murder but because the murder is utterly spontaneous2 and because there are so many people with legitimate reasons to want Ashby dead. What the author could have done for a follow up isn’t immediately obvious (although being set in small towns doesn’t prevent Midsomer Murders from racking up windrows of corpses); however, there have not yet been any sequels.
1: The workings of the firm’s computerized filing system could have been poached from a lurid post on comp.risks.
2: There’s an 87th Precinct novel in which the cops are delighted to deal with a locked-room murder mystery. The more planned and contrived the efforts to obscure whodunnit, the more chances to inadvertently leave a clue.