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The Hayloft: A 1950s Mystery by Alan Cook
Review by Don Metzler
Authorhouse Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 1425942210
Date: 30 June 2006 List Price $14.49 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Murder in a high school auditorium? When Ralph Harrison is found sprawled across the hard wooden seatbacks at the base of the balcony, his neck broken, the incident is dismissed as an unfortunate accident.

But Gary Blanchard, Ralph's cousin who lives in a neighboring small town 30 miles away, suspects a cover-up. Ralph, Gary speculates, was too good an athlete to have landed so awkwardly for a fall like this to have killed him... unless he was completely off balance from having been pushed. But Gary must keep his doubts to himself, as from a distance there seems to be no way for him to collect any information about the incident, beyond the official published version of what happened.

But six months later, during the first two weeks of Gary's senior year, he finds himself expelled from his high school. He goes to stay with his aunt and uncle (Ralph's parents) and transfers to Ralph's school. Within a few days of his enrollment there, he begins to surreptitiously quiz his new classmates for their impressions regarding Ralph's deadly fall. Initially Gary hears nothing out of the ordinary, and he begins to question whether his theory that Ralph may have been pushed from the balcony is nothing but an odd fantasy – invented, perhaps, because of the difficulty he is experiencing in accepting his cousin's death.

Gary also meets another cousin, Ed Drucquer, of whom he had previously been but peripherally aware. Ed's family had recently arrived in the States from England, and the family connection is a bit hazy as far as Gary is concerned. But Ed does have some interesting family history to relate, if it is to be believed. It seems that during the early part of the 19th century a common ancestor was compelled to flee Holland for England under mysterious circumstances. Further, there are tales of a priceless diamond necklace that once belonged to Dutch royalty, and has not been seen for generations.

Does the necklace still exist? Did it ever exist? And in any event, what is the connection between Ralph's death and Ed Drucquer's fantastic version of their shared family history?

Billed as "a 1950s mystery," I wasn't sure what to expect from The Hayloft. The setting, a rural high school in upstate New York during the McCarthy era, made me wonder if this would be a novel that was aimed at juvenile readers. But just a few pages in, I decided otherwise. Yes, the leading characters are all teenagers, the adult characters for the most part assuming supporting roles. But the tone of the narrative does not seem to be directed toward young readers, and the depth of the human relationships portrayed is anything but "juvenile." In fact, as something of a period piece, this story is likelier to appeal to the reader who is old enough to remember the 1950s, rather than to young people for whom Joseph McCarthy and bomb shelters are things taught in American history classes: topics from a bygone era.

I found The Hayloft to be a deceptively fast-paced story. The somewhat bucolic setting tended to lull me into thinking that there was little action taking place. Then I would glance at the page marker and discover that I had just read 50 pages or more without realizing that any time at all had passed. And that is one of the hallmarks of good fiction, is it not? That the narrative flows so seamlessly and holds one's interest so thoroughly, that the reader loses track of time.

The characters are complete, realistic and well-drawn: from the high school principal who displays hints of pedophilia, to Sylvia, the teenage activist and would-be conscience for the entire student body. The prose is clean and readable, and the story is nicely constructed. I would highly recommend The Hayloft.

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