June 23, 1997

Mystery, Chills Have ‘Last Laugh’

Matthew Weaver Rogers

There’s nothing better than a good murder mystery. One filled with weird, twisted characters keeping secrets, suspense galore, red herrings and even redder corpses.

That’s what I found Oakalla, the setting for John R. Riggs’ mystery series. Take Riggs’ chilling first book, “The Last Laugh.”

Each book stars newspaper columnist Garth Ryland. Ryland is written with a fascinating, gritty feel to him. He doesn’t take guff from anyone, with the exception of his tough-as-nails housekeeper, Ruth, who gives him plenty.

“The Last Laugh” begins when Oakalla’s resident prankster, Si Buckles, dies. Garth decides Si would be an excellent subject for his weekly column. This makes Si’s fellow pranksters, Phil Chesterson and Dr. Fran Baldwin, very nervous, but not as nervous as they get when they suspect that Si has risen from the dead and is coming after them.

After both Phil and Fran commit suicide, Garth teams up with Phil’s sister Diana to see if there might be some truth to Phil and Fran’s suspicions.

Add to it that Ruth was Si’s disapproving aunt, and that Si had one last prank planned to rock Oakalla to its very core, and you’ve got a dynamic, gripping mystery.

Aside from Garth and Ruth, the town of Oakalla is littered with sinister supporting characters who give it a “Twin Peaks” feel. A 400-pound antique dealer and a mute dwarf are considered normal. In “Laugh” there is Ruben, who watches over the Oakalla cemetery and who has never quite recovered from one of Si’s pranks years back. And there’s Tillie, an elderly lady who insists she saw Santa in July. Bizarre characters like these are mainstays in Riggs’ novels.

Riggs also fills his books with suspense. Every page right up to the end has some little twist that serves to deepen the mystery. And the ending is a real shocker.

If “The Last Laugh” sounds good, there are numerous other Ryland books including “Dead Letter,” “Cold Hearts and Gentle People,” and “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”

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