Book review: Despite sidetracks, "Miss Julia to the Rescue" entertains

I'm afraid I am a little late in getting to "Miss Julia." Since the first novel in this series, "Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind," appeared 13 years ago and sold an amazing 300,000 copies, author Ann B. Ross has written 11 sequels and shows no sign of slowing down.

Like her main character, Ross is a lady "of a certain age" who is spunky, resourceful and did not begin her career until fairly late in life. She entered the University of North Carolina at the age of 48, earned her bachelor's degree and doctorate, and by 1999, was ready to unleash the first "Miss Julia."

It was quite an unleashing. For 44 years, Julia Springer had been the quiet, self-effacing wife of the town banker, who always emphasized the values of a quiet, parsimonious life. Shortly after his death she received two surprises. He was far wealthier than he had told her, and he had fathered a child (Wesley Lloyd Springer Jr.) by another woman. The first novel is about how she reacted and how these events led to the formation of a new family.

By the time the current novel opens, "Miss Julia to the Rescue," Julia has remarried, as has her late husband's former mistress who has been living with Julia and Lloyd Jr., who is now in high school. The mistress, a sexy but not too bright woman named Hazel Marie Puckett, married a private investigator named J.D. Pickens, who disappears shortly after the book begins.

Miss Julia had just taken her new husband, Sam, to the airport when she gets a phone call that may be from Pickens. The call is cut off, but her sheriff friend traces it to a small town in West Virginia. It turns out that Pickens has been shot, hospitalized, and the local law won't admit they're holding him.

Hazel Marie is caring for her newborn twins, so Miss Julia and a friend named Etta May take off to get him back. Despite the fact that they have no plan and are not even sure it's the right guy, they head west.

This is only the beginning. A lot of this book consists of extraneous adventures that don't advance the plot but do provide some down-home Southern charm to those who care for it. It all works out fine, with Miss Julia getting ready to churn out another sequel.

It's hard to know quite what to say about this lengthy series. Viking wouldn't have published a dozen "Miss Julias" if there wasn't a market for them. My guess is that it's read by middle-aged book-club members in small towns across the South, women who like a touch of titillation, enjoy gossip and don't want to have to think too hard. Ross writes pleasantly enough, though she does have a tendency to pad her story with relatively meaningless conversation.

About all I can say is that if you like this sort of thing, you'll probably be delighted to meet Miss Julia.