Since Too Late to Die (1986), I’ve been routinely traveling to the fictional town of Clearview in Blacklin County, Texas to spend a few reading hours with the amiable Sheriff Dan Rhodes. Though I’m a Yankee, it’s not as far of a metaphysical journey as you would think because I grew up in farm country in a picturesque village in Tompkins County, New York—so I can relate.
As a youngster, on any given Saturday, Dad would take me with him to some place in town, say, Mr. Whyte’s garage, when the sheriff pulled in for whatever reason. Still can see that gun riding high on his belt and the so-very-serious look on his face. “He’d arrest his own mother,” Dad warned.
A few years later at The Park-It Market, I was buying some Big Red gum, when the same sheriff dropped off some brochures with the year-end crime report for the county. I helped myself to the free copy, since I planned on being a cop when I grew up. I remember reading something to the effect of DWI: 0, Larceny: 1, Aggravated Assault: 0, Homicide: 0, etc. Those zeroes stood out to me, made me wonder “why bother,” but I guess it showed he was tracking such things.
Then, one year, a sobering Homicide: 1. That chilling murder—in the house right across the street from where I lived—was never solved by our hard-nosed lawman. I can’t help but think that Sheriff Dan Rhodes, who also gets the occasional killing, would have cracked it. In Survivors Will Be Shot Again, he’s dealing with just that … murder:
Rhodes knelt down. The man on the floor was dressed entirely in camouflage clothing. Even his boots were camo-colored. A hood was over his head, which was turned to the side. Two bloodstained holes were in the front of his jacket. A couple of blowflies buzzed around the holes. A trail of ants crawled under the wall and up onto the man's head. Another trail led back under the wall to the outside. Rhodes didn't want to think about what they might be taking out with them.
The body of Melvin Hunt is found at the ranch of Billy Bacon, and Sheriff Rhodes notes Billy is being a tad bit jumpy—like he was aware the corpse was in his barn before calling the police over a robbery. Yep, after a little Rhodes on-the-spot cross examining, it turns out Billy did know about Hunt and had hastily removed a sign from the property front that reads: “Trespassers will be shot, survivors will be shot again.”
It doesn’t look so good, especially after the medical examiner says that is pretty much what happened. But, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. Hunt was dressed in a similar garb of a burglar that had been captured on a previous security camera feed, and yet, he had been the victim of thieving himself when his welding rig was pilfered. Sheriff Rhodes’s investigation leads him into some thorny situations—Hunt’s neighbor who doesn’t particularly care whether the man was killed or not, a marijuana patch guarded by a lazy gator, a survivalist compound, feral hogs, and, when he goes to notify the widow of the unhappy news…vicious dogs:
Moving with an alacrity he hadn't experienced since the long-gone Will o' the Wisp days, Rhodes opened the Tahoe door, jumped inside, and slammed the door. He was just in time. The dog that had been two steps ahead of the other, unable to stop his forward momentum, slammed into the door with enough force to shake the vehicle. Or maybe Rhodes was just imagining that. The Tahoe weighed nearly six thousand pounds, after all.
I’ve been amused by Sheriff Dan Rhodes’s exploits since his debut; like an old friend whose anachronistic manner you have come to appreciate even more in the ensuing years. I chuckled while reading Survivors as Rhodes tosses a loaf of bread at a convenience store robber instead of drawing his gun, as well as his droll reference to Keith Richards when he stumbles onto a wannabe thug who, looking to get high, dimwittedly mistakes an urn for a fancy drug container and inhales the contents. Then, there’s the ongoing entertainment of Rhodes’s extreme “patience,” as he somehow tolerates the relentless one-upmanship from coworkers Hack and Lawton, neither of whom aggravatingly ever seem to get around to the point of any given story. And, to exacerbate it all, hanger-on Seepy Benton, a mathematics professor, thinks himself an indispensable Sherlock.
When not just enjoying broad strokes of comedy (the author’s timing and phrasing are spot-on), I can appreciate Mr. Crider’s unpretentious, wry jabs at narrow-mindedness in all shapes, like Billy’s assertion that the gun isn't his but his wife Nadine’s, who is worried over all the home invasions she reads about. Mr. Crider writes, “Rhodes didn't read much about home invasions, because as far as he knew there hadn't been one in Blacklin County.” Those little asides are what makes reading this twenty-four book series such a treat for the longtime enthusiast. When Billy overuses the word okay, Rhodes ponders, “…if he could shoot Billy if he said okay? one more time.”
Sheriff Dan Rhodes: A Texan Luddite whose keen intuition on human behavior and exalted common sense compensates more than nicely for any police procedures he finds arduous and regularly ignores. In a world of Chicken Littles, he’s a reliable, steady intellect that, though a little worn by time and care, looks at the world at an angle.
Specifically, it’s a human comedy that he wants little part of, but as the linchpin of Clearview, he must move forward…just at his own pace. Another humorous thread woven throughout the books is that of a writing team who’ve apparently been inspired by Sheriff Rhodes and have created, to his dismay, a character named Sage Barton (”two-gun hero”) in a successful series of adventure-romance novels being optioned for film. Everyone sees the resemblance to the heroic lawman except Rhodes himself.
Now, here’s one time I disagree with our humble protagonist, because the good sheriff—not to just the fictional residents of Blacklin County—to me and a number of other readers is larger than life … thanks to Bill Crider.
The Five-Two: Crime Poetry Weekly, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, LitReactor, Macmillan’s Criminal Element, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Under the pen name Edward A. Grainger he created the Cash Laramie western series. He's a dedicated Whovian who enjoys jazz and backgammon. He can be found in scenic upstate New York where he lives with his wife and daughter.