A while ago I received an envelope in the mail. The return address was someplace in California, a name I didn't recognize. The contents weren't wrapped, and there was no note attached.
Inside was a book, clearly self-published, titled The Yarn Woman. I flipped over to the back and started reading, which is when I was instantly hooked. This book, my friends, is a mystery.
Here's the thing: Mysteries are my popcorn, my catnip and cashmere all rolled into one. Whenever I'm up against a deadline, which I've been this summer, I turn to mysteries at the end of the day to replenish my word stock. I've gone through Agatha Christie and Rex Stout and, now, the first of what I hope will be many Brooks Mencher books.
When a six-year-old mauling victim is brought to the hospital wrapped in a handknit sweater nobody recognizes, the police call in the experts for help. In this case, that expert is Ruth, aka The Yarn Woman.
She lives above an old Art Deco theater with her cat, her harpsichord, and "enough yarn to fill a railroad car." Her specialty? The forensic study of textiles. She can grab a fabric, a swatch, a skein, and unravel whatever mystery may surround it. In short, she is everything I imagine when I call someone a yarn whisperer, and then some.
The story is narrated by Nat P.M. Fisher, a reporter for the (fictitious) Daily Bulletin. (In real life, Mencher is a newspaper writer and editor.) Fisher's is a wonderfully authentic gumshoe detective voice somewhere between Perry Mason and Rex Stout's able-bodied assistant Archie Goodwin. Those fond of San Francisco will also enjoy abundant references to beloved (and sometimes obscure) corners of the gritty, foggy, glorious city.
Mencher is hardly the first author to sprinkle knitting into a mystery. But his unique perspective—as a loved one and observer of a knitter—manages to make this far more believable and entertaining. When we write about our passion, we tend to add a dose of stardust to the picture, painting it as we'd love to see it. Mencher paints it as he sees it, giving us a refreshingly eccentric, modern-day Miss Marple to solve a gruesome mystery.
Brooks Mencher is not a knitter. He is married to a knitter. He lives with her yarn, her needles, her patterns, all her unfinished projects, all of which is no small feat. The Yarn Woman is a clear indicator that he pays attention.
To me, this book is as much a juicy mystery as it is a love letter from husband to wife. He sees beyond the seemingly static act of knitting, of his silent wife twiddling her fingers over yarn, and envisions a world as grand and intriguing as ours really has the potential to be—only with gritty mystery plot attached. He honors what we're really capable of. Mencher's observations of his wife seem to have sparked a whole plot, a storyline, a narrative with rich characters and vivid scenes that are fun to read.
I was quite willing to overlook a few clunky passages here and there, a few adverbs E.B. White would've crossed out, because the strength of the story and originality of the characters carried me through. I want more, and I hope we'll get it.