Book Review

A bumper crop of N.C. mysteries

CorrespondentSeptember 17, 2006 

As reliably as figs, Big Red peaches and the soon-to-be-dashed hopes of Duke football fans, new mysteries by Tar Heels born and bred here seem to come to full fruition each year in the weeks surrounding Labor Day. This season is no exception.

On cue, Johnston County's perennially popular Margaret Maron has just delivered her annual harvest of Southern-fried suspense, multiple murder and family secrets in "Winter's Child" (Mysterious Press, $24.95, 324 pages).

This 12th novel featuring spirited Judge Deborah Knott begins with a murder close to home, then quickly moves literally and figuratively all over the map. When ne'er-do-well J.D. Rouse ("he'd get a pal drunk, then use him as a urinal") is shot to death while driving his pickup truck along a rural road in fictional Colleton County outside Raleigh, Deborah's new husband, Deputy Sheriff Dwight Bryant, gets the case.

Although nobody, including Rouse's battered wife, is particularly sorry to see the bully gone, Dwight has to do what a deputy sheriff has to do. But before you can say "everyone's a suspect," he gets a phone call and the plot thickens almost to a paste. (But a good paste, like marzipan.) So pay attention.

The call is from Dwight's 8-year-old son, Cal, now living with his mother in Virginia. The boy begs his father to drop whatever he's doing and come visit him right away. When Dwight arrives, he is distressed to find that his ex-wife apparently disappeared a few days earlier, leaving Cal virtually alone. Then mom returns. Then mom and Cal disappear. Then there's more killing back in Colleton County apparently related to the Rouse shooting. Then some Civil War relics mom had been inventorying for a Virginia historical society go missing. Then mom is found dead in a car. Then I had to fix supper.

But I didn't. I wanted to see if Maron could somehow pull all these myriad story threads into some kind of coherent plot. Danged if she doesn't. Although this necessarily superficial plot summary doesn't do justice to the pivotal part that Judge Knott (the name still slays me) plays in the novel, rest assured her wit and grit are on ample display as she travels to Virginia to team with Dwight on the most difficult -- and ultimately dangerous -- case of his career.

This series, like every other, has its ups and downs. But "Winter's Child" is one of the best, particularly for its harrowing close, wherein Maron empties a netful of clever red herrings all over the floor and again reveals why she's the writer and we're the readers.

Forensic anthropologist and part-time Charlottean Kathy Reichs is another late summer perennial whose mysteries starring alter ego Temperance "Tempe" Brennan have gained such acclaim they inspired the popular Fox TV series "Bones."

In "Break No Bones" (Scribner, $25.95, 337 pages), Tempe reluctantly travels to Charleston, S.C., to teach at a an archeological field school near an ancient Indian burial ground. When she and the students uncover a spanking new skeleton amidst the old ones, Tempe is persuaded by an old friend, the local coroner, to stay and lead the investigation.

Following the discovery of lots more fresh bodies found in the oddest places, the investigation rapidly leads to a sketchy local free clinic with a sullen physician in charge and an oily televangelist as its top benefactor. And when Tempe's current boyfriend, a Montreal cop, and her ex-husband, an attorney looking for a missing local woman, both arrive in town, Tempe's love life becomes potentially more complicated than her sleuthing job.

The only bone I have to pick is that, as with other recent series entries, the solution to the puzzle here is more transparent and consequently less interesting than the intriguing forensic, um, spadework Tempe pursues in attempting to bring the culprits to justice.

Longtime North Carolina newspaperman Mark Ethridge draws on his years at The Charlotte Observer to deliver a serviceable novel about race and memory in "Grievances" (New South Books, $27.95, 278 pages). After Charlotte Times beat reporter Matt Harper gets a newsroom visit from the scion of a patrician South Carolina Lowcountry family, he persuades his dubious editor to let him pursue the man's intriguing story about the decades-old unsolved murder of a black teenager. Despite interference from a lot of people -- including his paper's malicious publisher -- who don't want the story published, Harper travels to South Carolina to get to the bottom of the long-forgotten crime.

Ethridge writes evocatively, particularly in his descriptions of Lowcountry life. But some readers will be put off by his extended "inside baseball" depictions of the intricacies of newsroom politics. Others, like me, might wish for a less treadworn plot and fewer characters -- particularly a drawling, bigoted South Carolina sheriff -- who've spent too much time at central casting.

Wilmingtonian Ellen Elizabeth Hunter sets her historical preservationist sleuth Ashley Wilkes on another agreeably diverting mission in "Murder on the ICW" (Magnolia Mysteries, $15, 223 pages). While restoring an old hunting lodge near the Intracoastal Waterway, Ashley uncovers a body beneath a pile of long-discarded bottles. Seems the lodge was long ago home to one of the many moonshine operations once common along the waterway in New Hanover County.

And when former and current suitors of her sister Melanie, a former Miss North Carolina, start dropping like houseflies around the time of Wilmington's celebrated Thanksgiving Flotilla, Ashley needs to persuade Port City cops to look beyond her sibling and into the city's past to catch the culprit.

Western North Carolina journalist Scott Nicholson's "The Farm" (Pinnacle, $6.99, paperback, 394 pages) is technically more horror story than mystery, but the book has plenty of the latter. If sketchy step-parents, evil spirits, blood-drinking scarecrows and haunted houses -- all set a against a murky mountain backdrop -- strike your fancy, then Nicholson's adept conjurations will strike it hard enough to leave a mark.

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