Fifty Mysteries - John M. Floyd, Joe Lee

Fifty Mysteries: The Angela Files is John Floyd's brain-teasing collection of short mystery stories built around the characters of Sheriff Charles "Chunky" Jones and amateur sleuth, Angela Potts. They live in a small, unnamed, southern (US) town where they cooperate in solving mysteries of the criminal sort.

Angela Potts is a retired grade school teacher with a passion for puzzle-solving that has made her an unofficial consultant for the local police. Whether the crime be a murder or a puppy theft, she spots the tiny detail or makes the obscure connection that solves the mystery.

Sheriff Jones is Angela's former underachieving student who has come to respect, and even rely upon, Ms Potts' detective abilities. Though he can be cantankerous at times, and even dismissive of Potts, he always comes around to letting her do her thing to get the crime-solving done.

The crimes this duo tackles are presented in Fifty Mysteries as prose puzzles of the sort that are at the heart of storytelling in the crime mystery genre. Wasting no words (the stories average 4.4 pages with little variation) Mr. Floyd lays out the crime facts, plants clues and red herrings, and shows Jones and Potts working to a resolution (usually accomplished by Ms Potts, hence the subtitle: The Angela Files). A key element of that resolution, however, is left out and the reader is invited to supply it from clues offered in the story.

That element might be the perpetrator's identity or how Ms Potts or Sheriff Jones deducted it. To guide their deductions, at the end of each story readers are prompted with questions such as:

Why did Angela already suspect that George Glenn was the killer?

What gave Martin Russell away?

Which of the three young men was lying?

The answers are in the back of the book. This "interactive" format makes Fifty Mysteries very much a puzzle book and so is not a passive read if you try to solve the mysteries, as devotees of the genre will surely do. I found myself reading very deliberately, trying to evaluate the clues and spot the key inconsistencies as I went. It usually took a thoughtful rereading for me to find the solution, which I did about half the time.

Fifty Mysteries will exercise your detective muscle, which is the fun of mystery stories. The method for doing so, advocated by Angela Potts in agreement with Sherlock Holmes, is to observe rather than just look. And what Angela is looking and listening for is inconsistencies. As she says to Sheriff Jones (who is still learning from her):

"...I just watch for inconsistencies...All liars aren't lawbreakers, but most lawbreakers are liars. You have to listen for things that don't add up."

The 50 mysteries are set in a specific environment that we come to know, along with the characters that live there. That environment (southern small town USA) is a vital part of the storytelling (think Sherlock Holmes and late 19th century London) and Mr. Floyd is very true to it. We come to enjoy the repartee between Sheriff Jones and Ms Potts, and appreciate their history and ongoing student-teacher relationship. Now these stories are economical in the telling so there isn't a lot of explicit character development since the emphasis is on "the puzzle," still, we can infer a few things.

It seems that Ms Potts has ingratiated herself with the sheriff to the point that he has overcome his initial resistance to her "meddling" and now considers her a part of his staff (he even says as much at one point). He brings her to crime scenes to get her opinion, lets her handle dispatch, and makes arrests based on her deductions. She is even referred to a couple of times as an "Investigative consultant." At other times, though, Ms Potts' successes wear on Jones' ego to the point that he doubts himself. He feels he is playing second fiddle to his fifth grade teacher. This really only surfaces in one story (#36) but it's the sheriff's most touching moment for me:

"...When something interesting happens, something serious, you always solve the case."

In mystery #44, Mr. Floyd tells the story from the viewpoint of the perpetrator. This is the only one where he does this and it's an engaging contrast to the other stories. Seeing the perp's chagrin at his own inconsistencies and his bewilderment at Ms Potts' presence provides an interesting perspective on the Potts/Jones characters and their relationship established in the other stories:

The police arrived within minutes. To his surprise, a gray-haired lady showed up with Sheriff Jones and his deputy.

Mr. Floyd has longer treatments of Angela Potts and "Chunky" Jones in his other works and these characters' popularity among readers is what led to them being the exclusive sleuths in this book. So sit back and enjoy their mutual annoyance and admiration as they work together to deduce the truth from the twisting machinations of criminal minds. And try your hand at solving these 50 mysteries in the storied, sun-baked South, where crimes abound, everyone eats at Roscoe's, and the sheriff can still learn from a retired school teacher who has found her second career in listening for people to "say something wrong."