by Patricia McLinn
By the time the ink is dry on on Elizabeth Margaret Danniher’s divorce decree, she has lost not only a husband, but a career. He’s managed to shuffle her right out of a seat on a New York City newscast and straight into a lightweight job as a consumer reporter for KWMT-TV in Sherman, Wyoming — until her contract runs out in six months.
Her KWMT colleagues are either star-struck or competitive and threatened. Case in point: anchorman Thurston Fine, who wouldn’t know a story if it bit him on the ankle and couldn’t report it if a big city network news anchor slot were dangled in his face.
She’s trying to figure out how to block Fine’s efforts to undermine her as a flock of second-graders touring the news room flood by. One, a compelling, starchy little girl (Tamantha Burrell) stops at her desk and requests Elizabeth’s help. Her father, Thomas David Burrell, is in jail charged with murder. If he isn’t cleared, Tamantha says her mother will get the judge to keep Tamantha from seeing her father again.
Against her better judgment, the conversation pricks Elizabeth’s curiosity. She learns that Burrell and and the now missing Deputy Foster Redus had words and exchanged punches four months ago and Redus hasn’t been seen since. Burrell was arrested and charged, although no body has been found.
When KWMT sports reporter Mike Paycik hears of her interest, he wants in on the investigation to hone his reportorial skills. The pursuit of the truth sends Elizabeth off on an investigation that educates her about her new community and introduces her to people — the local supermarket cashier, the sheriff’s department dispatcher and a retired teacher — who know who’s doing what to whom and where the skeletons are hidden.
Sign Off is an engaging, credible story in a fresh and fascinating setting. McLinn never turns her characters into cartoons or disrespects the town or the community.
The only flaw for me was that the series falls short in developing Elizabeth’s character. Through the first four books, Elizabeth is facing the expiration of her contract and KWMT job; whether to leave Sherman and find work as a talk show host; and whether to become romantically involved with one of Sherman’s two most eligible bachelors — Mike Paycik or Tom Burrell; and, if so, which one. But she never seems to make headway.
Many reviewers compare McLinn to Janet Evanovich, author of the Stephanie Plum mystery series. Stephanie Plum and Elizabeth Danniher have both stepped into new worlds — Stephanie bounty hunting and Elizabeth Wyoming; they are both strong, smart, sometimes sassy women; and they are both torn between two hot men. But where Evanovich’s books are flippant, McLinn’s books deal with serious issues.
The town of Sherman, WY, is in reality a ghost town about 19 miles southeast of Laramie. The town was located at the summit of the original grade of the original transcontinental railroad and is the highest point along the entire length of transcontinental Interstate 80.
The “Caught Dead in Wyoming” series
Despite the fact that McLinn has set her series in a small town in a rural setting, each book captures a dimension of that world in great detail and richness. The murders covered in each book are contextually reasonable and realistic.
The other books in the series include:
- Left Hanging. When the livestock provider for the Sherman Rodeo is found trampled to death in a bull pen, Elizabeth gets a behind-the-scenes introduction to the rodeo — from the rhinestone sparkle of the rodeo queens to the hard and dangerous work of the competitors to the financial finagling that keeps the rodeo coming back to the community year after year. In the process, she meets some of Sherman’s community elite, highly committed to keeping their secrets hidden.
- Shoot First. When Elizabeth’s neighbor shoots a man in her basement, it seems like a straightforward case of self-defense against a burglar trying to steal from an extensive hoard of artifacts. The more Elizabeth digs, the more treasure-seeking hoarders she runs into, from the director of the local museum to an eccentric multi-millionaire trying to recreate a supposedly “authentic” Western town.
- Last Ditch. When a dying man confined to a wheel chair disappears from his home, his family calls the alarm. Elizabeth, Mike Paycik, Tom Burrell and surrounding neighbors join the search. When the missing man is found, his dead body isn’t the only one there. The search for answers takes Elizabeth deep into the complexity of Wyoming’s water ditches and ranchers’ entitlements for water.
The Author: Patricia McLinn
In addition to the “Caught Dead in Wyoming” mysteries, Patricia McLinn writes romance and women’s novels. She’s known for strong, believable characters in witty, warm stories.
She holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. She was a sports writer for the Rockford Register Star (in Illinois) and an assistant sports editor for the Charlotte Observer (North Carolina) before moving to The Washington Post. There, for more than 20 years, she was copy chief for the sports department and an editor for the news service, among other positions.
She lives in northern Kentucky and writes novels full time.