Austin McKenzie, a veterinarian and investigating detective, and his wife, Madeline, solve the murders of several others vets, and help the launch the careers of two aspiring vet students, Joe Turnblad and Allegra Fulbright. The Case of the Roasted Onion [ISNB 0-425-21223-8] is the first in a new series in which Claudia Bishop introduces us to Austin McKenzie, a veterinarian and investigating detective, and his wife Madeline. The title comes from the obsolete method of managing colic in horses: inserting a roasted onion into the end of the digestive tract.
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Austin has recently retired as the head of the Bovine Science Department at Cornell University. He has started an independent large animal veterinary practice on his farm, Sunny Skies, in Summersville, New York, where he and Madeline live with their collie, Lincoln, their cat, Miss Odie, a Quarterhorse named Andrew, a Shetland pony named Pony, and whatever “patients” happen to be in the barn at the time. He also makes barn/farm calls.
He's never been a fan of “high-society horseplay”, so when he receives a letter from Brewster McClellan of the Organizing Committee of the Earlsdown Three-Day Event, inviting him to be the veterinary delegate [the head veterinarian for the event], and to attend the Hunt Ball, he says he will refuse. His, wife, Madeline, wants him to accept, since it will give him lots of exposure [thereby increasing the number of their “patients”] and because they need the money - $15,000 for the week. Some time back, he took a large loan from his comfortable retirement income and invested in Enblad, a company whose CEO was now in jail and whose CFO was living on a tropical island with no extradition treaty. Both he and Madeline are surprised by the invitation because they thought that another vet, “…Larky Schumacher had that gig all sewed up.”
Austin doesn't like what he hears of Brewster McClellan. “I haven't actually met him, no. But I know of him, and none of it is good. He owned the animal that Jerry Coughlin was alleged to have killed last year. His daughter competed on it. More to the point, he was the one that brought the charges against Coughlin when the horse died…the man's trouble.” As time progresses, we see that Brewster McClellan physically abuses his wife, is verbally abusive to his daughter, Stephanie, and is involved in insurance fraud and other illegal schemes.
A few minutes after Austin and Madeline open the invitation they receive a telephone call from Victor Bergland, who succeeded Austin as Chair of the Bovine Science Department. According to Victor, Larky is dead, “… Shot to death on State Road Forty-one, just off Fifteen…Folks down at the Monrovian Embassy think it's a sniper.” [The Monrovian Embassy is their local diner; it serves wonderfully delicious, very fatty, foods that Madeline won't let Austin eat!]
In addition to his other objections, Austin is concerned about what will happen to his other commitments if he goes to Earlsdown for a week: his vet practice; their own animals; and his newspaper column in the Sentinel. Madeline suggests that he can write his newspaper column online, and that he can hire a vet student as an assistant while they are away.
They, actually, end up with two veterinary assistants, who share the job, and live in, getting room and board. Joe Turnblad, a second-year vet student, grew up, poor, in the Bronx with his grandmother. Ever since he was a young man he's had to work summers – in the Bronx division of the ASPCA, a construction company, a small animal clinic, and a body shop. He's a scholarship student but he gets money only for tuition. He has to pay for his rent and food himself. He's an excellent student, but has much more “book learnin” than he has practical experience with animals. Allegra Fulbright is a college senior with a major in music and a specialty in voice; she is “pre-vet”. She comes from a very rich family but, for some reason not immediately obvious, has serious money troubles. [We eventually find out that her father had been the CFO of Enblad .] She has much less “book learnin'” than Joe, but has had lots of “hands-on” experience with animals – especially cows and horses – and has competed in many three-day events, including Earlsdown. Although Joe and Allegra, initially, behave like “newcomers to the herd” they find that their skills complement each other and, with the help of Austin and Madeline, they form a fine partnership.
Austin decides to accept the invitation. Brewster McClellan and his wife, Marina, come to Sunny Skies with the contract so that Austin can sign it. As they are leaving in their Lincoln Continental, according to Austin “…a large hornet whizzed past my right ear and buried itself in the Continental's shiny black flank…It was a bullet hole.”
Another attack on a vet, this one unsuccessful.
Chief of Detectives Simon Provost comes to investigate. Joe, who had worked in an automotive repair shop, helps to retrieve the bullet from the car door. They find that it's the same kind of bullet that killed Larky.
The next attack on a vet was successful.
Victor Bergland calls. “You hear about Benny Grazley, Austin? Shot dead as a doornail…Stopped for gas on his way to a farm call this morning and blam!”
All three bullets are from the same gun.
Benny Grazley, and Brewster McClellan were involved in a complicated insurance scam, buying horses at high prices, making them more valuable by having them win a prestigious event, insuring them for even more than they bought them and, then, disabling or killing them for the insurance money.
In addition, Jerry Coughlin, the vet who was alleged to have killed McClellan's entry at last year's Earlsdown, has been doing research on a product that will allow certain tests to be done in the field, producing immediate results. It's worth billions. The vets who have been killed were all partners in the company; the partnership agreement says, in the event of a death of one of them, the shares go back to the company, i.e., the remaining partners. Now, the only remaining partners are Coughlin and a nearly bankrupt McClellan.
Austin has an appointment with Jerry Coughlin. Austin says “I was twenty minutes late, as luck would have it. But it didn't matter to Coughlin. He was already dead when I got there.” Coughlin was in his car, in the garage, with the exhaust hose in the driver's side window. Chief of Detectives Simon Provost thinks it's a suicide. Austin does not. The insulation around the car windows, preventing fresh air to get into the car, was applied from the outside, as was the insulation around the garage door. The prime suspect is McClellan. Who will continue the research now that Coughlin's dead?
Everyone is going to Benny Grazley's funeral which is held in a tent on the grounds of the Grazley Clinic. Austin and Madeline are in their car. They see Brewster and Marina McClellan. Brewster waves to him, which is his last act in this life. A red dot appears in the center of his forehead. He's been shot.
The murderer is Greg D'Andrea, a young scientist who has been having an affair with Marina. His plan was to marry Marina, get all the shares of the company and, according to Austin, kill Marina after he married her.
However, they find the gun where he left it and, near the gun, they found the toothpick he was chewing.
As Austin says, the DNA on the toothpick will “get” Greg.
Best part of story, including ending:
I liked the story because it was charming, well written, and fast moving. In addition, I learned a great deal about veterinary practices and equine events.
Best scene in story:
In my favorite scene Austin, writing his newspaper column, responds to a letter from M.W. who says that the “…dearest little possum…” she found last winter, and whom she placed in a “…comfy nest…”, is still hibernating. She's concerned. Austin writes “Dear M.W. Possums do not hibernate. Your pet is dead.”
Opinion about the main character:
I like Austin McKenzie because he has honor and integrity, is very clever, has a compassion for animals, and has a very egalitarian relationship with his wife, whom he adores.