This, the 14th book in Margaret Maron’s Southern Deborah Knott series, brings a small-town predicament to the forefront: What do you do when you live rurally, in tobacco country, and the city decides to move in? The expansion of tract housing construction and strip malls is beginning to pressure small farmers out of their family-owned lands. Deborah’s father is one of those farmers, a tobacco grower who dabbles in moonshine as a sideline; he is disturbed by the high-pressure real estate agents and County Commissioners. The new developers aren’t interested in family history, or in improving the infrastructure, but are aiming for big bucks, made fast.
Because Deborah is a county Judge, she is particularly concerned about her future on the bench, as well as apprehensive about her friends and neighbors. She has finally married childhood friend Dwight Bryant, who is the county’s sheriff. Theirs is not a marriage “made in heaven” but a solid, loving one based on earthly interests and deep involvement with their community. Nevertheless, with so much angst and anxiety swirling around them, it is hard to see how they can make their way out of this morass of troubles.
The Southern setting is one Margaret Maron does beautifully because she is writing about what she knows so intimately – North Carolina. She was born and raised not far from her mythical Colleton County, N.C. Her characterizations are not stereotypical, though, and avoid any of the trite and bucolic caricatures. She understands and appreciates the Southern lifestyle and via this book does an excellent job of expressing the concerns of all small towns facing over-building, urbanization and shoddy, mismanaged development. Even if you have never before picked up a book in this series, this mystery will move you through the story in a comfortable yet cutting-edge way. Death's Half Acre cannot really be classified as a cozy because the situations are too realistic, the struggles too evident to the modern reader. However, it will certainly appeal to those who enjoy cozies, simply because the cast of characters is so interesting.
Deborah’s marriage is important to the plot, as is her developing relationship with her stepson who lives with them after the death of his mother. Yet the domestic sub-plot doesn’t overwhelm the key story – a murder mystery. The first untimely death is not unexpected: County Commissioner Candace Bradshaw. Separated from her decades-older husband, living in one of the new McMansion developments, it is quite likely she has been on the take, padding her purse with kickbacks and bribes from wealthy developers. As the plot thickens, the reader becomes very aware of the undercurrents of Ms. Bradshaw’s family, past and present. The more Deborah investigates, the more she finds herself enmeshed in the past unsolved death of the local former newspaper editor and deeply troubled by the rumors of the local preacher’s attempts to degrade the women of his congregation.
Certainly, Maron’s story is intense and full of Deborah Knott’s (and Maron’s?) personal dislikes and politics. Personally, this reviewer found the viewpoints expressed energizing and highly readable. Regardless of how the rest of the country thinks and believes, fundamentalism is a fact throughout much of the South. As all the strands of the story begin to come together, it is evident that each facet is not placed in the storyline for fluff but advances the narrative and brings together people, places and things that seem very divergent. It is easy to develop a stake in Deborah’s story and in her life, and to find yourself cheering her on as she struggles to conclude the tragedies in the county.
Novels such as the Deborah Knott series of Margaret Maron’s do much to demonstrate strong women characters, flawed but searching, who enjoy their lives and their times. In such strength, the reader finds much to enjoy, to mull over and from which to learn. Just because a book is classified as a fiction piece does not mean that there aren’t lessons and morality tales within. Enjoy!