by Margaret Maron
Warner Books, 272 pages
Agatha Award-winner Margaret Maron has been praised for writing mysteries that depend not just on plot, but a fine eye for local color. Her Deborah Knott series, set in fictional Colleton County, North Carolina, takes care with every detail--from the vinegary Carolina barbecue that characters chow down on as they gossip about crime to the caustic references to unsuccessful political candidacy of NASCAR hero Richard Petty. "Maron has a knack for . . . outlining the tensions between New and Old Southerners," the Seattle Times noted in their review of the first Knott installment, "Bootlegger's Daughter." Publishers Weekly savored Maron's "good-ole-boy patter."
Maron gets more than just the accents right. The Knott books offer one of the most even-handed portrayals of Southern religion you'll find anywhere in fiction today. Churchgoing is as central to her evocation of Southern life as the iced tea that big-haired women are constantly pouring.
Colleton County believes, but the citizenry's faith is quiet. Maron never settles for caricature: Colletonites are neither fanatical evangelicals nor the indifferent mainliners that sociologists would have you believe fill America's churches. Deborah, a District Court judge, is a Southern Baptist, but a feminist and a Democrat too, who goes to church to pray and to press the flesh. "Election day was still two months away ... Nevertheless, I continued to hit as many churches as I could every Sunday." Readers get to listen in on sermons and sample pear salad and fried chicken at church picnics.
The role of the church has been growing in Maron's work. In "Home Fires" (1998), black churches around the county start burning, giving Maron the opportunity to introduce Ralph Freeman, pastor of Balm of Gilead backroad chapel. In her new book, "Storm Track," the seventh Deborah Knott mystery, readers become more intimately acquainted with Freeman and his family, whom Maron uses to teach important lessons about the marriage bond. Ralph is locked in a loveless marriage with the submissive yet severe Clara. Ralph "might have been the preacher," Maron tells us, "but it was [Clara] who had all the Thou Shalt Nots engraved on her heart."
Clara, unlike most of the easy-going Christians we meet in Colleton County, is a less nuanced character--at times she seems the stereotype of the Christian wife-as--doormat. She speaks of having "yoked" her life to Ralph's, of submitting to him, of being "an upright and faithful helpmeet." But when she learns that Ralph is having an affair with Cyl DeGraffenried, the elegant, icy assistant DA, she confronts him: "I had my tubes tied after Lashanda, so why do you have rubbers in your desk, Ralph? What whore you lying down on? I'm your true wife, the mother of your children."
Though neither Deborah nor Cyl--nor, presumably, Maron--shares Clara's particular strain of Christianity, Clara, and the sanctity of marriage, triumph. Ralph calls a halt to he affair, though it breaks his heart and devastates Cyl, and commits himself to rejuvenating his marriage.
"Storm Track" is not just a fable about fidelity. When the novel opens, we find Judge Deborah preparing for Hurricane Fran-the 1996 storm that smashed into piedmont North Carolina with winds usually reserved for the coast. The mystery is fast-paced, with twists and turns as unpredictable as the hurricane's path. Ralph and Cyl's affair is not the only domestic storm brewing: Lynn Bullock, the trashy but hard-working wife of a young up-and-coming attorney, slips away for a romantic weekend with one of her myriad lovers. Before Fran hits, Lynn is found dead in her hotel room, strangled by a sheer black stocking. Deborah's cousin--along with several other bar denizens Lynn's been bedding--is suspected of knocking her off. Clara Freeman gets dragged in to the mess, as does her prayer partner, Miss Rosa, a maid at the motel where Lynn is strangled. Justice prevails--meted out not by the lcoal sherrif, but by God, with a little help from Hurricane Fran.