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Four moon gifBerkley Prime Crime (Hardcover),
ISBN 0-425-17296-1

People fuss about where to go on vacation. They throw out exotic names like Cancun or Rio de Janeiro or Venice. I simply want to visit San Celina, Calif., hometown of Benni Harper, super sleuth. But how do I get to this figment of Earlene Fowler's imagination?

Earlene Fowler, Seven SistersSo far the best route leads through Fowler's Benni Harper murder mysteries. Most recently I took a trip via her seventh novel in the series, Seven Sisters. I visited with Benni and her macho, gorgeous half-Latino husband Gabriel Ortiz as well as Gabe's son Sam. I met the Brown family, pillars of the community with a history as old as San Celina, and some of the quirkiest family members you could imagine. At the top of the not-so-quirky list of relatives stands Sam's fiancé, who forms the link between Benni's clan and the Browns for this story.

Benni's family adds to the wild ride, and a visit from Gabe's ex-wife shakes Benni's status as number one wife. Grandma Dove, who raised Benni after her mother's death, freely dispenses advice and admonitions between baking sessions. Benni even cooks a few meals which causes her husband to ask suspiciously, "What aren't you telling me?"

Gabe, police chief of delightful San Celina, understands that his feisty wife rarely performs domestic chores and rages against her constant involvement in murders. He grudgingly adjusts, and Benni learns to keep her head down while dodging bullets. And bullets do fly in Seven Sisters.

Book: Earlene Fowler, Mariner's CompassThe Folk Art Museum, with Benni as curator, offers a variety of clues, as well as opportunities for introspection on lives and art. It forges the link between quilts, country and murder -- links that bind this series together. Each of Fowler's book titles reflects the name of a quilt pattern, beginning with her first novel, Fool's Puzzle. I recommend reading the series in order. At least read the first in the series to understand the relationships. Also check out her sixth novel, Mariner's Compass, which brought home the Agatha Award for Best Traditional Mystery of 1999.

Fowler mixes just the right amount of humor, pathos, quirky characters, advice, suspense, mystery and mayhem, producing a recipe for murder that keeps me coming back for seconds, thirds and now sevenths. She creates a cast of charismatic characters who draw you into their lives better than any soap opera. I want to hang out with Benni and her friends. Heck, I even like the murderers. And they all live in or around San Celina, a pastoral community where ranchers, artists, blue-collar workers and aristocracy gather in a sometimes volatile mix.

Although San Celina will never be a vacation destination, I hear Fowler bases her fantasy town on real-life San Luis Obispo. Maybe I'll check it out while I wait on number eight in the Benni Harper series, due next spring.

Dawn Goldsmith

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