The Trouble With Mattie
by Mary A. Berger
Though Mattalie “Mattie” Morgan’s story is cozy reading, her life at the Autumn Leaves Housing Center For Those In Need is anything but cheerful, snug, and safe. Owner Wynn Prescott and manager Jim Reemes, siyphoning business funds to support their luxurious lifestyles, bully the residents. Swindlers par excellence, they have protected their scheme from every angle.
Located within a triangle formed by Asheville, Hendersonville, and Franklin, North Carolina, few relatives and friends brave the long wilderness drive. Raleigh cohorts detract inspectors and the law. The younger their residents, the more stable their income; Mattie is only fifty-five. They discourage socialization within the complex and provide no transportation to surrounding communities. The dining room serves slop! Physically big men, Mitchell and Reemes intimidate residents with threatening visits to their rooms. Rebellious Salina Shaw, terrified of eviction onto the street, fled in the middle of the night. Insolent staff members reinforce their bosses’ tyranny. Fraud has made them so wealthy that Prescott and Reemes gloat, “. . . it all comes out of these idiots’ pocketbooks.” Not for much longer, guys!
As her story opens, stepdaughter Eva drives a rebellious Mattie to Autumn Leaves. Three years into a happy marriage, a heart attack claimed her husband Gabe. Before she could re-organize her life, a severely sprained ankle and the flu provided Eva ample opportunity to sell Mattie’s condo, coerce a doctor into prescribing the housing center, and abscond with the funds. Exhausted after the long drive and arguing with Eva, Mattie’s arrival is especially disheartening.
A dry marble fountain stood in the front yard, flanked by two rusting wrought iron benches. Beyond that, a . . . patch of weeds, in the middle of which sat a couple of broken-down yard chairs. A curt medic insists on carrying Mattie, until, eyes flashing, she drew back her cane and delivered a solid whack to his shinbone. Lauren Shaw, a kindly aide, accompanies Mattie indoors where everything looked so . . . gloomy that she was sure the place must be run by mummies. As she surveyed her new home . . . Mattie was filled with a sudden rush of despair at how drab and dull everything in the little room appeared. Finally, Clare Tibbits, strong drink in hand, declares, “You never really get used to being here, Mattie. You just curl up and die of boredom.”
Mattie deflates as she fully comprehends her predicament: grief for her beloved Gabe, friends who never call or visit as promised, and her plunge from comfort and financial stability to poverty in the shabby housing center. Being Mattie, she quickly recovers and resolves to discover the truth about Autumn Leaves. Clare sounds the battle call: “I don’t know what’s going on around here and it scares me.” Mattie, with Clare as her accomplice, charges forth!
They initiate a game of kick-the-can, a major event at Autumn Leaves. Mattie filches paper and colored markers to make posters announcing a protest meeting. Chicken fricassee that reminds Mattie . . . of something she’d once seen in a test tube . . . projects her from the dining room shouting, “I refuse to eat one more meal here!” From then on, she prepares meager meals in her room. Rumors of a greenhouse on the grounds propels Mattie into the woods with Clare fretting, “. . . there could be a mass murderer hanging out in those woods.” Pity the person who attacks those two! Like their Autumn Leaves’ peers, Mattie and Clare ultimately regret censuring the illusive Gwen.
Reemes admonishes Mattie, but doesn’t press the issue too much because, “She is a looker. . . That’s the only reason she’s lasted this long here: I like watching her walk.” Smugness evaporates when Reemes discovers that Mattie has influential friends unintimidated by the long drive. Scottie, her devoted nephew, is intrigued to learn that Mattie cannot find Autumn Leaves on the Internet; her discovery of a secret computer room brings out Scottie’s hacking best.
Jed Mitchell, Mattie’s friend and lawyer searching for Eva, finds Mattie’s reports about Autumn Leaves intriguing from legal standpoints. So smitten with Mattie that he can barely talk without blushing, he behaves more like a schoolboy than a tough, respected lawyer.
Even with their help, Mattie is discouraged, but she and Clare continually incite the residents to rebel, especially after Mattie personally experiences their greatest fear. Not until tragedy strikes, do they finally unite.
Tackling a variation of elder abuse in the cozy-reading genre took daring on the part of Ms. Berger. As required, she reveals just enough details to establish her plot’s dark side, often through Mattie’s bright perspective. Missing from her story are intriguing character developments. Clare and Gwen, so different in outlook and denouement, present an excellent contrast among Autumn Leaves’ residents. Is the intelligent and kindly Lauren Shaw an angel of mercy dedicated to helping the residents; is she related to Salina Shaw, the victim who fled in the middle of the night; or both? And then there’s the amorous (so he hopes) Bernard – my favorite resident – with surprising gumption in assisting Mattie. Hopefully, Ms. Berger reveals more about these characters in her second book – especially Bernard.
The major problem with The Trouble With Mattie, and a great disservice to Ms. Berger, is NO proofreading. Rare is the page without a plethora of errors, justification gone awry being the most obvious. Many lines contain enormous spaces, others drop to the next line after a few words. Someone and restroom are each one word. Repeatedly, a semicolon replaces a comma: “Come on, Matts; let’s get this monkey moving!” or “Yes; finally.” Three ellipsis points indicating faltering speech are spaced from the word on either side and in between, not: “Oh, we will…er…they will!” A question mark followed by an exclamation point indicates emphasis only if used sparingly – not after the vast majority of questions.
These few examples reveal the overall quality of care NOT taken in the production of The Trouble With Mattie. The first response will be, “This isn’t classic literature, so what’s the big deal?” The big deal is that in our era when language is increasingly dumbed-down, everyone responsible for producing language, whether a cozy mystery or a potential classic, has an obligation to assure readers that language still matters. If we don’t care, then…
“Excuse my interruption, Ms. Ickes, but off your soapbox, please. As the book’s protagonist, I must make an important suggestion in a manner which, I hope, is your first lesson in diplomacy and tact.
On page 51, Dear Publishers, I am referred to as Hattie rather than Mattie. Ms. Berger and I would very much appreciate your attention to that detail in my next book, which, I happily report, is coming along very nicely. Thank you very much. Come along, Ms. Ickes, Clare and I want to begin your second lesson.”
Mary Berger’s writing has appeared in national magazines, small press publications, and in the Hendersonville Times News. She speaks at local libraries and was an exhibiting author at the Blue Ridge Bookfest. Until Mattie’s next book, fans can follow her on Mattiemysteriesblogspot.com
Mary Ickes enjoys corresponding with WNCW readers and welcomes suggestions for books to review. Her e-mail is email@example.com