Thursday, October 10, 2013

Recalculating Directions. Turn Left At the Cow by Lisa Bullard

The deputy looked back at me. "I can't give you the answers to those questions, kid. I did think of your dad as my friend. But turns out I didn't really know him the way I thought I did."
Deputy Dude continued. "As far as the money goes, here's the thing.  In law enforcement you learn that lots of times the obvious answer is the right answer.  I'm not real big on coincidences.  I mean, I'd like to give you the benefit of the doubt, but the truth is... you and the cash turn up the exact same week. It's almost guaranteed the money's reappearance is connected to you.  
So if there's anything  you want to tell me, I promise to help you out.  I can pull a few strings for the sake of your grandma; you won't be in trouble."

When his mother remarries, Travis is pretty sure he's the third wheel in the way of the newly-wed's summer travel plans, so he "borrows" his mom's credit card number to buy a one-way ticket to the tiny town in Minnesota where his ne'er-do-well dead dad's mother lives, a place so small he jokes that the final GPS direction to find it would have to be "Turn left at the cow." Trav has hopes that his Grandma may know why his father robbed the local bank and disappeared along with the loot, leaving only a drifting boat near an island in the local lake and questions about his presumed drowning.

But at first Grandma is grim and tight-lipped. The only things from the past she reveals to Trav are the seemingly ancient wrapped remains of his dad's hunting and fishing prowess in the hiccuping old freezer that he is assigned to clean out as the first part in his penance for running away. Travis and Grandma load the "dead animal parts," frozen in plastic Halloween bags labelled "Deer" and "Walleye," to haul them off to the dump, where Trav has his first encounter with "Crazy Carl," a man who once mentored his dad but now is reduced to muttering and living amid the trash. Crazy Carl, however, is sharp enough to recognize Trav as his father's son and in the midst of his mutterings, suddenly says cryptically, "I know where it is."

As Travis soon learns, "it," is the missing loot from the bank robbery, now a local legend, centering mostly around the small island in the lake which folks from town have spent much spare time digging up over the past thirteen years. With the help of a couple of new friends, the football-loving Kenny and his good-looking cousin Isabelle, a.k.a Iz, Travis is filled in on the missing chapter in his family history according to village lore and begins his own search of the reputed "treasure" island where his dad is believed to have buried the money on the night of his disappearance. Travis feels he is beginning to understand why his mother refused to tell him anything about his father, and despite her initial tight-lipped distance, he and his grandmother begin to feel a new rapport.

But then, after Grandma gives Trav money to buy a new bike at the local store, "bait" notes from the robbery turn up in the day's till. Travis is immediately the prime suspect. Then he receives an anonymous warning, spelled out with letters cut from a newspaper:


And in true mystery style, it is only during that midnight bike ride to the dump to meet the suspect that Travis suddenly realizes exactly where the stolen money must be.  (Hint: Foreshadowing here!)

Lisa Bullard's just-released Turn Left at the Cow (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) catches just the right combination of  a buried treasure mystery, a brush with a mendacious murderer, a recalculation of family dynamics, and a bit of  sweet summer romance in this cool-kid-from-L.A.-meets-mystery-in-dairyland page turner. A farmland detective story in which even the setting plays a part, this debut novel is well-plotted and measured in development. and despite its undeniably entertaining style, proves to be somewhat of a coming-of-age novel as well. Teen sleuthing, a dash of life-and-death danger, and a hint of first love by the lake will make this one appealing to middle readers, both male and female.

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