Margarget Maron’s books in the Deborah Knott mystery series capture the essence of rural North Carolina, and indeed the rural south, like no other books. I fell in love with this series while living in New York. I’d ride the subway or the train to work and read about Colleton County, the area in North Carolina where the mysteries are set, and dream of the day when I could move from my cramped 800 square foot apartment into an old farmhouse on a back lane somewhere. Well, I ended up building a modern Victorian instead of buying an old farm house, but I did get my dream of living on a farm on a back lane, albeit in Virginia.
Part of Maron’s gift is evoking place; she deftly uses a few sentences to paint the gritty red clay earth, the feel of tobacco sticks sticky with tobacco resin, the trailer houses interspersed with farms and modern subdivisions that make up the rural south.
The mystery series focuses on Judge Deborah Knott, the only daughter in a huge old-time local family who became a lawyer, then a judge. Through the series, Deborah is courted by friend/good old boy/sort of brother Dwight Bryant, and in the book just before Winter’s Child, Deborah marries Dwight in a Christmastime ceremony that made me feel happy even after I closed the cover of the book. That’s how well drawn the characters are in this series; I wanted both Deborah and Dwight to live happily ever after, and I breathed a sight of contentment when the vows were said.
Now we turn to Winter’s Child. It’s a different book from the rest in the series in several ways. First of all, it is told from both Dwight and Deborah’s point of views, alternating from first person accounts in Deborah’s narrator voice, which long-time readers have come to expect, interspersed with Dwight’s third person narrative. It’s necessary to the story because instead of being set in the usual small town in North Carolina, most of the action takes place in Virginia.
In this story, Dwight receives a call from his son, Cal, asking him to come to Virginia. He’s cagey about why he needs his dad; his parents divorced when he was a baby, and Jonna, Dwight’s ex, has full custody of the boy and appears to be a model mother. When Dwight arrives, however, nothing is as it should be. Jonna has disappeared, and then Cal is kidnapped. Jonna is found murdered in her car, and a massive hunt for the missing boy is launched. We are led down various paths until the murdered and the kidnapper are unveiled; one is believable, the other, not so much, but I don’t want to spoil it for you if you plan to read the series.
The writing is lovely, and although I disliked the flashbacks to a subplot in North Carolina (really unnecessary, except to bring some secondary characters along in the series), the entire book was a satisfying read. It was a good who-done-it, with likable, believable characters; great descriptions and settings; and it made me keep the light on past midnight one night just to read more, because I cared so much about Cal and whether or not he would be found soon!
If you haven’t read any books in the Deborah Knott Mystery series, begin at the beginning with Bootlegger’s Daughter. Take your time and savor these mysteries. If you love a good character-focused mystery, you’ll want to make this series last and last!