||December 10, 2008
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John Howard Reid
13 people have booked into Sister Susan's Health Farm for a week's lessons in keeping fit. They are among the oddest and most exuberantly conceived imaginable.
Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders
This was the second of the "Merryll Manning" series of detective novels to be published. When it first appeared in bookstores in 1985, it immediately sparked a fair amount of critical attention. All favorable. Sales were excellent, The book quickly sold out and was re-issued with a new dust-jacket in 1986. A large print edition was published in 1987. It also sold out. An American publisher purchased the U.S.-Canadian rights for $5.000. But as it happened, "Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders" never appeared in the USA at all. Until now! The rights finally reverted to me in 2007.
A reader here at Authors Den has kindly sent me a review by Chantel Stewart. This review was featured on the back page of the 1987 Large Print edition:
Thirteen guests at a health farm -- an unknown killer -- remote and exotic settings in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales -- here are all the ingredients for a classic mystery thriller.
Strongly plotted -- cleverly drawn and extremely interesting characters -- bright, believable dialogue -- plenty of action and suspense -- as well as mystery -- "The Health Farm Murders" is a thriller well above the formula, with a climax that is absolutely stunning and unforgettable.
The following review by Cherie Fisher appeared in “Reader Views”, August, 2009:
Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders” is a well-written story full of intrigue and suspense that will keep you turning pages until the final surprising outcome. John Howard Reid wrote this story twelve years ago, and now it is finally making its way into the United States market. It is the second of twelve in the Merryll Manning series. The story is written about a town called Happy Valley, but it is actually based on a real town called Blackheath, Australia, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. The characters are fictional, but the events are based on actual murders that occurred in a few different places and venues.
Merryll “Merry” Manning is taking a well-earned vacation from the Miami Police Department, or is he? He arrives at Sister Susan’s Health Farm in Happy Valley, Australia, excited at the prospect of doing something healthy and restful from his stressful job. He quickly finds himself in the middle of an investigation as the other visitors at the health farm start dying. Police Sergeant Lambert is quick to blame Jimbo Punter, a local who had an affair with the Sergeant’s wife. Merry is not convinced that Jimbo is involved and looks at everyone as a suspect. Each of the suspects is a very colorful character, but do they have the potential of turning into a deadly killer?
The author does an excellent job of describing the local countryside in detail. The story setting is in a beautiful valley that was burned by fire. It includes a harrowing hike through the sometimes beautiful, sometimes desolate terrain that has many landslides, sheer cliffs and rivers – all places for people to meet unfortunate ends. As Merry is fully immersed in this nightmare, he finds part of the truth to what has been happening as he almost loses his life. The other part of the truth comes out later and is very surprising.
I recommend “Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders” by John Howard Reid to mystery fans; it makes for a great summer read.
Leonard Ward wrote in "The Canberra Times":
"Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders" has already attracted some attention overseas, so it’s pleasing to report that this book, set in a thinly disguised Blackheath in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, fully deserves that strong commendation. The action takes place at Sister Susan’s Health Farm off Govett’s Leap Road In Blackheath (called "Selkirk" in the novel). That establishment has a revolting vegetarian regime, although the author maintains that Sister Susan’s peculiar ideas are actually "based on the diets advocated by highly-respected nutritionists," particularly Mary C. Hogle in "Building Up With Foods That Alkalinize and Heal" and C.E. Clinkard in "Eating for Health".
When not delving into diets and other aspects of "healthy" living, the author displays considerable powers of invention. His very fertile imagination enables him to create some extremely sticky situations for his murder-investigator hero before the book’s culprit is eventually found.
It is a measure of the author’s inventiveness that "Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders" always claims the reader’s complete attention. This novel is a most commendable mystery thriller which fully deserves its overseas’ acclaim.
Merryll Manning - The Health Farm Murders - A Mystery by John Howard Reid Reviewed by Nikky Howard: July 7, 2010.
Miami Police Sergeant Merryll Manning is on vacation at a health farm in Australia after answering an ad that guarantees a return to health and happiness. But Merryll's hopes for rest and relaxation are quickly dashed when a fellow guest is found dead.
Obtainable for the first time in North America, this is the second of twelve Merryll Manning books by author John Howard Reid. Despite being a sequel, the book reads well as a stand-alone. Sister Susan's Health Farm is located in fictional Happy Valley, based on Blackheath, within the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia. Author Reid introduces a massive cast of solidly intriguing characters, each of whom have retreated to the farm for their own distinctive reasons. His protagonist is not any stereotypical detective: Merryll (Merry) Manning comes across as a subtle, eccentric policeman instead of the macho, ego-driven cops so common within the mystery genre.
When a retired film exhibitor is found dead and the local police arrive, there is immediate friction between Merryll and police sergeant George Lambert. Lambert's police skills seem restricted and Merryll queries the sergeant's ability to solve a homicide. Lambert points the finger of guilt at a local thug, James "Jimbo" Punter. Merryll suspects the sergeant nurses a personal bias against Punter and learns Jimbo once had an affair with Lambert's wife. A huge police manhunt for Punter begins within the vast valley. Meanwhile, the survivors of Sister Susan's farm set out on the ultimate hike of the visit to Pulpit Rock Lookout. The hike is vigorous and dangerous as the author brings all the players together for an epic confrontation. However, he keeps the reader guessing as to the true identity of the killer till the ultimate pages.
The author features a knack for scene-painting narrative. His vivid descriptions of the mountain scenery and the simple accommodations of the farm effectively put the reader right in the scene, watching the drama unfold. Mr. Reid has penned a charming, soft-boiled detective story with a strong main character, a terrific supporting cast, and a plot with twists, turns, and lots of red herrings. He treats the reader to a tale filled with tension, conflict, and quirky humor. The violence is minimal and there's no foul language. I highly commend "Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders". This is an intelligent, stylish, cleverly fashioned mystery that won't disappoint. People who love a nice whodunit will be hooked. Merryll is an excellent hero and this is sure to be an entertaining, enjoyable series.
Lynda Coker writes: Merryll Manning just thinks he is getting to take a vacation from his stressful job at the Police department. He heads to Sister Susan's Health Farm but he does not find the restful place he has hoped for. Instead, he finds himself in the middle of trouble. Several visitors start dying at the farm and the Police Sergeant there in Happy Valley thinks he knows who is responsible. But Merryll is not convinced he knows the truth so he starts to investigate everyone. Merryll comes close to losing his life. In the end his discovery of the truth is very surprising.
You will want to follow this story to the end. Each character keeps you questioning who the true murderer could be. The author does a great job of describing the different places and people so that you get a feel for exactly how the story takes place. If you love mystery stories then you will want to read this surprise ending!
It’s not every day that a cop gets to travel on the same train as a murderer. There were actually thirteen of us, all wearing little name-cards on our jackets, all booked for a week at Sister Susan’s Health Farm, off Govett’s Leap Road, Happy Valley.
Sister Susan had booked our seats for us. I didn’t know any of my companions, but they all looked older than me. I’m forty-five, but I flatter myself I look ten years younger — thanks to daily workouts in the gym. Lately, though, I’d been feeling a bit seedy. Working for the Miami Police Department rates as not exactly the most restful of occupations. That’s why I answered Sister Susan’s advertisement in The Miami Sun-Times — the one with the big heading: Take a Refresher Course in Sunny Australia: THE HAPPY VALLEY HEALTH WAY IS THE NATURAL WAY! Sister Susan promised to clean out our systems, revitalize tired cells and set us firmly on the road to health, happiness and low self-hostility. Mind you, the path wasn’t all that easy to find, let alone navigate. Passport up to date? Yep. Then fly from Miami to L.A. Then off to Sydney, Australia. Finally, the train jaunt to Happy Valley.
The health-seeker sitting next to me was a typical example of the need-a-refresher type. The name-card said, “E. J. Hopkins”. I knew him from somewhere, but I didn’t recognize the face. It was a big, square-cut, extremely wrinkled face, the folds of skin hanging in great ridges across the forehead and down the cheeks. His eyes were watery, light blue and dreamy-looking.
“Ever been to Sister Susan’s before?” I asked him.
He looked at me with his dreamy, light-blue eyes and his puckered face. “Mah first time, old soldier.” His voice was American – a Texas drawl, yet surprisingly soft, despite an odd habit of raising his voice slightly at the end of each sentence, as if meaning to say a few words more but then changing his mind. “Yours, old soldier?”
I turned my back on him. Although it was comforting to find a fellow American in a train full of Oz-dwellers, I don’t like being called “old soldier” — or old anything, for that matter. The train was gathering speed.
“Excuse me, old soldier. What star sign have you?”
Star sign! I looked at my neighbor blankly. His wrinkled face was turned to me enquiringly, seriously. Again I studied the name-card on his breast. “E. J. Hopkins”. Now I remembered that name! Star sign! He was one of those charlatans who write astrology columns for syndicated American newspapers. I sighed. “June 22nd.”
“Ah! Cancer!” Hopkins nodded his head vigorously. “Ah thought so, old soldier. In fact, Ah knew it. Knew it just from mah first glance.” Again that irritating inflection at the end of each sentence! Maybe Hopkins thought the affectation gave his voice an edge of sincerity? The accent sounded phoney too.
I turned my attention back to the scenery rapidly passing by outside the window. I didn’t want to prolong this conversation. As soon as we reached Happy Valley, I would get shot of E. J. Hopkins as quickly as possible. Somehow, some way, I’d always contrive to keep eleven men between him and me.
The dialogue from the seat behind sounded much more interesting. It was all about Happy Valley. I knew the name, of course. The Valley used to be a very popular holiday — even honeymoon — resort back in my parents’ time. (My mum was born in Sydney. Married dad when he was stationed in Oz during the war. WW2, that is). Anyway, I knew Happy Valley was located right at the end of the so-called Blue Mountains, where we’d soon be getting plenty of that crisp mountain air that Sister Susan promised as being so bracing for the health!
Anthony Puxty in The Newcastle Herald:
A HEALTHY DOSE OF MYSTERY: In reviewing his earlier novel, I remarked that John Howard Reid, the author of "Merryll Manning: Trapped on Mystery Island", showed a firm grasp of character, incident and suspense. These qualities are again evident in "Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders". Now, however, they are set in a longer and more complex novel where the characters have the freedom to develop and the plot has more twistings and turnings in which intrigue can lurk.
13 people have booked into Sister Susan’s Health Farm for a week’s lessons in keeping fit. They are among the oddest and most exuberantly conceived bunch imaginable. They include an alcoholic priest (Father George McDonald), a gluttonous minister (Kevin "Tubby" Holloway) from an unheard-of sect, an astrologer (Erasmus J. Hopkins), a yarn-spinning ship’s captain (Lester Jurd), and two public servants (Bill and Jack Seabrook) who are so dull they are almost unconscious.
But barely have they all arived at the farm before one of the guests dies, closely followed by another. To the suspects the reader has to choose from, one must add the thick-witted local police officer (Sergeant George Lambert) and a notorious home-grown criminal (James J. "Jimbo" Punter).
The solution of the murders, though unexpected, is a little confusing. [This has since been rectified]. But this is all that stops "Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders" from being a very good mystery indeed.
Gordon Pittaway in Writers' World:
Top-class! A classic thriller with an intriguing plot, convincing characters, and dynamic action in generous measure.
To quote Marcia Van Zeller, who reviewed the book in "The West" newspaper, "In his exciting mystery novel, ‘Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders’, John Howard Reid displays a lively narrative style." I fully endorse that encomium.
Admittedly, John Kernick of "Book Review" was less enthusiastic, noting that in his opinion, the novel was "little more than an expansively produced Agatha Christie mystery, set in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Australia."
On the other hand, I found "Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders" a book of comparable quality to the best produced anywhere in the world.
Elaine Smith writes:
John Reid offers “The Health Farm Murders” as the second of a series of Merryll “Merry” Manning detective mysteries. Most everyone loves a good “whodunit” and Reid’s book easily falls into that category.
An educated Miami Police Department detective is attracted to an advertisement for a healthy retreat in his mother’s native Australia. He jumps at the chance, finding himself with a mixed bag of companions. Happy Valley is anything but happy, despite the scenic vistas and untamed natural areas, as a fire in recent past laid waste to much of the area. The town itself harbors a secret, and a sinister aura permeates the atmosphere. Juxtaposed to the dark essence hovering over the valley is Sister Susan’s Happy Valley Health Farm.
The guests appear to be from many different walks of life, and to not know each other, though a common thread of familiarity begins to unravel the fabric of life at the Health Farm. As a rule, the guests bemoan the sparse and overly healthy fare prescribed by their ageless host, but endure and sneak chocolate bars to satisfy their rumbling bellies. However, the Health Farm is far from healthy as guests are suddenly dying in their sleep.
Merry Manning, the “yank copper” must sift through the ashes of the fire ravaged countryside and Happy Valley dreams to discover the murderer before all the guests meet their demise.
The characters are well developed and the story line has enthralling twists and curves which deepen the mystery and kept the reader’s rapt attention. The front and back cover designs are themselves somewhat mysterious—appropriate for the story of a sleuth. Mr Reid relates his story in first person, in a somewhat unusual style, and with many artfully written passages which keep the reader’s attention and maintain the suspense throughout the book.
“Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders” is a top notch murder mystery with moments of brilliance, vivid descriptions, and believable characters. This is an entertaining read which will keep you turning the pages in an effort to reveal the secrets of Happy Valley.
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Reader Reviews for "Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders"
|Reviewed by m j hollingshead
|Writer Reid paints vivid description of the locales to draw the reader into the action. His description of characters fleshes each to provide a good mental picture of each. I liked the lack of gore, viotlent outburst despite Merry’s head bashes and restraint from either capricious sexual scenes or profanity.
I found interesting that setting for this particular work, on the other hand; uses geographical details relating to Blackheath and Govett's Leap area of Oz, are correct in physical detail, while the ambiance features of the town is made-up.
Happy to recommend John Howard Reid’s Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders for readers who enjoy cozy type tales filled with trepidation, red herrings, some inconsistency, little overt violence, an absence of profanity all in addition to more than a little idiosyncratic humor.
I received ARC for review from a publicist
whole review can be seen on Compulsive Reader, Jandy's Reading Room, Molly Martin Reviews and elsewhere on the net