Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t learn anything from reading fiction. Here is an abbreviated list of things I learned from Jess Lourey’s September Fair: Neil Diamond went to NYU on a fencing scholarship, his fans are called Diamondheads (a fact that would have come in handy when I worked in an office of Neil Diamond fans), there is a competitive “sport” known as sheep riding or mutton busting, and Araucana chickens lay blue and green eggs. But September Fair is a lot more than a compendium of Neil Diamond and State Fair knowledge.

Mira James, a librarian/newspaper reporter from Battle Lake, Minnesota, is on a week-long assignment covering fair activities. She’s glad to be there, having discovered four murdered bodies in as many months after moving to Battle Lake for a quieter life. She’s considered giving up on Battle Lake but decides to stay. “It was a new idea, this sticking-it-out approach, and it looked good on paper.” Then she witnesses the death of the new Milkfed Mary, Queen of the Dairy, and reporting on the fair gets a lot more complicated.

Mira now has to look into the murder as well as the fair’s attractions. She’s assisted by her elderly friend, Mrs. Berns, major Diamondhead and winner of tickets to Diamond’s fair concert, which she shares with Mira; Berns also introduces Mira to sheep riding. Also in attendence is Battle Lake’s steamroller of a mayor, Kennie Rogers, who talks with a heavy Southern accent despite her Minnesota roots.

Lourey’s affection for the state fair is evident. She’s particularly good on the food, especially Mira’s weakness, the Deep-fried Nut Goody on a Stick. (Just about anything you can imagine—and some things you can’t—are sold deep-fried on a stick at fairs.) Mira may question how anyone ever thought of the idea of sculpting a head in butter, but she remains respectful of the talent and difficulty it takes to do this. And, since this is the fifth in the murder-by-month series, Lourey indicates awareness of the darker side of the fair: behind-the-scenes nastiness and more serious crimes and the unsavory influence of big business on the foods we consume, deep-fried or not, in this lively mystery.

Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.

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