Much of the lore surrounding Elvis Presley’s life and death is quite mysterious. Peggy Webb’s newest entry in her Southern Cousins series is a mystery with a principal character being none other than the inimitable King himself, reincarnated as a basset hound, who helps his master, Callie Valentine Jones, ferret out whodunit during Tupelo’s Best Elvis (impersonator) Competition.
If that hook doesn’t reel you in you don’t have a mouth. Or perhaps you don’t care about Elvis (unthinkable), aren’t fond of Southern whodunits (what’s your problem?) or you aren’t sufficiently familiar with this series. You should be.
Meet the hound dog
Webb’s “Elvis and the Grateful Dead” follows her previous series entry, “Elvis and the Dearly Departed,” and although it’s certainly no Maltese Falcon, it’s entertaining fare no less than rock and roll music or slugburgers for lunch. The plot is standard: Participants in the contest start dying and suspicion falls upon Callie’s cousin, Lovie, the event’s caterer. Enter amateur sleuth Callie and her faithful hound dog Elvis to solve the day.
The sub-plots add necessary texture. For women readers, there’s the relationship between Callie and her likely soon-to-be ex-husband, Jack. For Elvis fans, there’s the reincarnated King silently judging his impersonators with wry disdain. Best of all, the novel’s perspective shifts back and forth between Callie and Elvis, resulting in an almost seamless blend of chick book and guy (ahem, dog) mystery.
While some of the dialogue is as corny and predictable as you might expect (“Ann-Margaret [a poodle] becomes putty in my paws”), Webb invests it with enough hard edges to make it interesting. When Callie’s mother mentions going two-stepping in Tunica, “Home of genuine Vegas casinos built right in the middle of Mississippi cotton fields. Listen,” she grouses, “I’d rather have the cotton.” Or when Elvis opines on one of the contestants – “Don’t let the pretty face fool you. My early pals weren’t called the Memphis Mafia for nothing.” Or regarding yet another – “I never did believe George was guilty of anything other than bad taste. Case in point, his wig.”
This tale will hold a special significance for Tupelo residents. Reed’s Bookstore, the Bancorp South Convention Center, the Ole Miss Tupelo campus and Calvary Baptist Church make cameo appearances, as does the even more fanciful “Gas, Grits and Guts” in Mooreville, where, it is duly noted, you go if “you want gossip with your gas …”
And then there’s the mystery. Is G.I. Elvis from Pensacola, a.k.a., Terry Mathews chemist at large, the killer or the next victim? Is Bertha Gerard more than just a “killer in bed?” Will Callie and Jack get back together or break Elvis’s heart and divorce? Can Elvis howl “Amazing Grace” as well in fur as he did in bell-bottoms?
Only Peggy Webb knows for sure. But you can find out between the covers of “Elvis and the Grateful Dead.”
If so, you’ll find her effort to be the kind of lighthearted fun that can do one heckuva lot for a rainy weekend or an interminable airport delay.
Jim Fraiser is a federal administrative law judge in Tupelo and the author of four novels, including the Southern thrillers “Shadow Seed” and “Whiskey with Chaser,” and eight non-fiction books, including the forthcoming “Garden District of New Orleans.”