Margaret Maron has written more than two dozen mysteries. My confession: I had read none of them. Then an advance copy of “Long Upon the Land,” her series with District Court Judge Deborah Knott of Colleton County, N.C., came in the mail just as I was heading to the beach. Might as well give it a try, I thought.
I’m now playing catch-up – reading the 19 other mysteries featuring Knott as well as Maron’s first series centered on Sigrid Harald, a New York police detective. Harald also happens to be Knott’s cousin on her mother’s side.
Lucky for me, “Long Upon the Land” is not a bad place to dip into the Knott series, as the judge is trying to solve a family mystery as well as help her husband, Sheriff Dwight Bryant, solve a murder that occurred on her father Kezzie’s land. The family mystery – who is the Leslie engraved on a Zippo lighter her late mother, Sue, always carried? – allows for flashbacks. In these, set during and right after World War II, Sue Stephenson meets and marries Kezzie Knott, a local bootlegger. The flashbacks are an excellent way to fill in more of the Knott family’s backstory without being repetitious for those who have been reading Maron all along.
The other mystery takes up the larger chunk of the story. Kezzie Knott has found a man with his head bashed in near a ditch on his farm. There are plenty of suspects, as Vick Earp was not a nice man. Indeed, Knott had once had him before her in court, charged with domestic abuse. There’s his wife, whom he routinely beat when he’d been drinking or when something was out of place in their obsessively neat home. There’s his wife’s sister who didn’t take to seeing her sister bruised and battered. And there’s his own brother, whom he also bullied. But what worries Knott is her family’s connection. The victim had a longtime feud with her father and brothers, and two of her brothers are being unusually quiet.
As compelling as the mysteries – and both will keep you guessing to the end – are the courtroom feuds and dramas Knott solves along the way. There are two elderly cousins who both want the remaining two plots in the family cemetery in New Bern; a 15-year-old who wants to be emancipated from her parents so she can marry her boyfriend, who has already fathered one child with someone else; and a couple who are divorcing and fighting over custody of their dog. As Knott deals with them all she’s a little bit Solomon and a little bit Andy Griffith. Let’s hope Maron has modeled Knott after a sitting Tar Heel judge; I’d like to think I’ll find her brand of justice if I’m ever in court.
One of the reasons I had resisted Maron for so long was that I was afraid she’d use the state as a backdrop only – a few references to Raleigh and sweet tea and maybe some trailer trash thrown in and be done with it. Silly me. Born in North Carolina and living now for many years on her family’s farm outside of Raleigh, Maron knows the people she’s writing about – and more than that, cares about them. She captures the rhythms of speech and life here, the fierceness of a sudden summer storm, the changes around us, and she even throws in a few whacks at the legislature (over budget cuts to the judicial system and education) for good measure.
Mary Cornatzer: 919-829-4755
Long Upon the Land
Hachette Book Group, 288 pages
There will be a launch party for Margaret Maron’s new novel at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11, at Quail Ridge Books and Music, Ridgewood Shopping Center, Raleigh.
She returns to Quail Ridge at noon Aug. 19 for a reading and to sign books.
In October, she’ll receive a Lifetime Achievement Award and moderate the Best First Novel panel at Bouchercon, the international mystery convention being held this year in Raleigh. Get more details at www.bouchercon2015.org