“Our Love Affair With Murder”: Donna Meredith Reviews Five Mysteries

Donna Meredith

Reviews by Donna Meredith

Sex sells, but crime pays too—at least for writers. Mystery and crime stories earn upwards of $730 million a year in book sales. That’s a lot of love for dead bodies, sales figures topped only slightly by the live bodies found in the romance genre. From the earliest mysteries penned by Edgar Allen Poe to the cozies of Agatha Christie and hard-boiled detectives of Michael Connelly, crime has proved popular with readers. Mystery comes in subgenres to please diverse tastes. Here’s a smattering of recent releases.

Southern Gothic

“Heaven’s Crooked Finger” by Hank Early

Crooked Lane, 2017

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326 pages

One common feature of Southern Gothic is eccentric characters, and Heaven’s Crooked Finger definitely has a few. A snake-handling preacher deep in the Georgia mountains unleashes havoc in Hank Early’s riveting debut novel about a community unhinged by the Church of the Holy Flame.

The preacher’s son, Earl Marcus, fled to Charlotte years ago to escape his father, who ruled his sons and Coulee County through fear and violence. But no one gets to escape the past, because as Faulkner told us, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

A letter compels Earl to return to the mountains. Mary Hawkins, a Coulee County deputy, writes that “it would mean the world” to Granny to see him again before she dies from pancreatic cancer. Granny is the black midwife who took Earl in when he first ran away from his father. She raised Earl when the rest of the community shunned him at his father’s command. Earl says she is “the woman who took me in when I was learning to be a man and held my hand until I’d had the strength to grow up.”

Even though he is fifty years old and his father is dead, Earl can’t escape the tentacles that leash him to his father’s legend. A second letter is inside the envelope that Mary sends. A parishioner claims the Reverend RJ has risen from the grave. The old man always said he would ascend to the mountaintop because he was a true believer, a man of faith, but Earl never believed his nonsense. Not really. But what if it was true?

There are so many reasons not to go back. One is the whole issue of snake-handling. Earl’s brother Lester had done it to earn his father’s approval. But when it was Earl’s turn, a cottonmouth bit his face, nearly resulting in death because his father refuses to seek medical help. This incident brought on Earl’s open rebellion against his father and the Church of the Holy Flame.

Another reason is Earl’s brother Lester, the new minister of the Holy Flame. The brothers haven’t spoken for years. Not since Lester’s girlfriend turned down his offer of marriage and then turned up pregnant with Earl’s baby. Not since the Reverend RJ Marcus humiliated her in front of the congregation. Not since this young woman hung herself. Yet Earl can’t help but wish for Lester’s forgiveness, for reconciliation.

The narrative drifts back and forth in time smoothly, as Earl grapples with painful memories and confronts those in the community who resent his meddling in their current affairs.

This novel has so much going for it. A blind man and a reprobate who prove to be a strong allies. Mary and Early’s alliance. Writhing snakes, which, of course, are going to slither right out of Earl’s nightmares and into his reality when he returns to Coulee County. A corrupt sheriff and his henchmen. The mystery surrounding the disappearance of several teenage girls. Not to mention the crazy possibility that the Reverend RJ might actually still walk among the mountains after his death.

The author is a middle school teacher in Central Alabama. A sequel to Heaven’s Crooked Finger is expected in 2018. Can’t wait!

The Cozy

“Trouble in Tallahassee” by Claire Matturro

KaliOka Press, 2017

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308 pages

If gross-out violence isn’t for you, the cozy mystery might be your choice. The murderers are usually fairly intelligent characters and their dastardly deeds are presented with minimal gore. The protagonist is often an intelligent woman whose job or hobby leads her into contact with the crime.

That’s sort of the case in Claire Matturro’s Trouble in Tallahassee, only not entirely. The smart woman is a lawyer, Abby Coleridge, who wins your heart right away because she takes in a young law student whose apartment was damaged by fire. But she also takes in a cat named Trouble—who turns out to be smarter than a whole room full of lawyers and police officers. And so we have what’s known as a Cat Cozy, popularized by the books of Lilian Jackson Brown and Rita Mae Brown. Trouble is the star detective in this third addition to the Familiar Legacy series. Each book in the series is written by a different, accomplished author, including Carolyn Haines, Laura Benedict, Rebecca Barrett, and Susan Y. Tanner.

In Trouble in Tallahassee, Abby soon has reason to question the wisdom of sharing her home with Layla. In Abby’s presence, a man in a hoodie grabs Layla’s backpack and holds a knife against her throat. No harm comes to anyone because that clever cat Trouble creates a distraction and the assailant runs off. Soon after that incident, Layla disappears, leaving behind a blood-spattered note—and Abby might be a suspect. An even greater incentive to solve the mystery is that Abby’s temporary roommate is diabetic. If Layla has been kidnapped, she needs medicine to survive.

Former Navy Officer Victor Rutledge is also studying law at FSU. He is sure the fire in Layla’s apartment, the knife-wielding assailant, and Layla’s disappearance are linked. Since Layla is his study partner, he offers Abby assistance in figuring out what happened.

Just looking at Victor causes Abby’s heart to beat a little faster, but she believes he’s Layla’s boyfriend, and she isn’t the kind of girl to step in the middle of someone else’s romance. Even worse, rumors cast shadows on Victor’s past, leaving Abby with doubts about his trustworthiness.

Matturro uses alternating viewpoints to great advantage. The technique lets readers in on secrets that one character knows and another doesn’t. The result is delightful tension as readers wait for the moment when all will be revealed.

Can Trouble, the wily cat, nudge Abby and Victor in the right direction to solve the mystery of Layla’s disappearance? Of course, but it’s such fun finding out how the cat will manage to communicate with humans and bring about justice. There’s only a little blood, but an abundance of mysterious flash drives, romance, and mayhem in this fast-reading tale with a feline tail at its heart.

This is Matturro’s fifth mystery, following Skinny-Dipping, Wildcat Wine, Bone Valley, and Sweetheart Deal. An honors graduate of The University of Alabama Law School, she became the first female partner in a Florida law firm and taught at Florida State University School of Law, a locale she uses in Trouble in Tallahassee to good effect. She now lives in Southwest Florida.

A Literary Thriller

“Cinco Becknell” by Lee Maynard

West Virginia University, Vandalia Press, 2015

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398 pages

Some readers—those who enjoy biting their nails and hanging onto the edge of their seat—go for the thriller genre in a big way. Thrillers provide suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety. Especially anxiety.

Cinco Becknell, the only novel West Virginia author Lee Maynard wrote in third person, is an unusual thriller that rises to the level of literary fiction. The suspense builds not only from physical threats, but also from psychological anxiety. The title character is a homeless amnesiac who can’t remember his real name as the story begins. His homeless friend Little Jimmy dubs him “Stick” because he looks so emaciated. Stick has repeated dreams—resurfacing fragments of memory—of running away from sadistic men and being recaptured over and over again. This psychological plot thread covering the journey to discover who he was before—and who he is now—is reminiscent of the Jason Bourne thrillers written by Robert Ludlum.

The second plot line is more threatening in the present. Stick’s pal, Little Jimmy, sees two thugs disposing of a murdered woman’s body. Now they want to eliminate the witness. Because they believe Little Jimmy told Stick about the crime, they also want to kill him. So Stick is on the run, hiding. The homeless community is good at hiding, often in plain view.

This poignant, accurate depiction of those humans we often fail to recognize elevates this thriller into a category all its own. Maynard worked as a volunteer among New Mexico’s homeless population and this book paints the most human portrait of them I’ve ever encountered. Santa Fe’s artists and the surrounding desert landscapes are also recreated with precise, evocative detail. Another literary aspect is the light sprinkle of indigenous people’s mysticism and magical realism. Maynard has crafted a truly unforgettable story, but a couple of scenes might be too violent for some readers’ tastes.

Born in a small town in West Virginia, Lee Maynard’s articles appeared in Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Review, Rider Magazine, Washington Post, Country America, and Christian Science Monitor. He wrote seven books, the last published posthumously in 2017.

The Down-and-Out Lawyer

“Cashed Out” by Michael H. Rubin

Fiery Seas Publishing, 2017

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288 pages

Plenty of mysteries and thrillers use lawyers as the central characters for good reason. Lawyers can plausibly come in contact with crime and criminals in all their varied manifestations. And lawyers are generally smart—after all, they graduated from law school. John Grisham, Margaret Maron, Lisa Scottoline and Scott Turow have used lawyers as protagonists successfully.

Following in that tradition, Michael H. Rubin created “Schex” Schexnaydre, a Louisiana lawyer who is down on his luck. He has one ex-wife, no clients, and no money—the latter two mostly due to the ex-wife. Then toxic waste entrepreneur G.G. Guidry walks into Schex’s house, which doubles as his office. Guidry needs corporate and real estate paperwork prepared pronto. Schex is sure he has struck gold.

Sure, that is, until 2 a.m., when a panicked Guidry returns with a suitcase, demanding Schex ensure its safety and not to leave the house until Guidry returns for it. A day later Guidry is dead and Schex’s ex-wife Taylor becomes prime suspect. She is half-owner of Guidry’s toxic-waste re-processing plant. Worse yet, she wants Schex to defend her. Naturally, he’s reluctant. Hasn’t she already caused enough damage by cheating on him with his former boss?

With Guidry dead, Schex rips into that suitcase and discovers $4,452,737 in cash. No saint, Schex schemes to keep part of those greenbacks for himself if he can figure out how to do so legally. But he isn’t the only one who knows about that money. Soon, everyone from his ex-wife to the Louisiana mob is after it.

As the bodies pile up, Schex endures all sorts of physical and verbal abuse and narrowly escapes death more than once. After all these trials, will he get to keep any of that cash?

Like many good mysteries, this one raises serious issues. While the fictional plot focuses on the mystery of where all that cash came from in the first place, the environmental degradation of Louisiana’s rivers and bayous is far from fiction. Neither is the racism inherent in the placement of pollution-spewing industries near minority neighborhoods.

Cashed Out, Rubin’s second novel, is an entertaining read underpinned by important social issues. The author is a nationally known speaker and humorist as well as a full-time appellate attorney. He has also been a professional jazz pianist in the New Orleans French Quarter. His first novel, The Cottoncrest Curse, received the Book-of-the-Year Gold Award at the American Library Association meeting in 2015.

A History of Murder

“Appalachian Murders & Mysteries,” Ed. James M. Gifford and Edwina Pendarvis

The Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2017

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423 pages

True crime stories sometimes evoke such a strong sense of revulsion and nausea I have to put the book aside, but not so Appalachian Murders & Mysteries, compiled and edited by James M. Gifford and Edwina Pendarvis.

This thoughtful collection provides a thoroughly researched history of murders in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Southern Ohio. The 17 authors of the 23 stories include scholars, journalists, a state representative, teacher, historians, a judge, an archivist, a publisher, and an administrative assistant. Accounts are presented in chronological order, beginning with the murder of a black slave child by her owners in 1809 and ending with the murder of a 16-year-old girl viciously stabbed by her best friends in 2012.

In “The Murder of a Child Named Hannah,” by Phyllis Wilson Moore, it is hardly surprising that a slave’s owners could not be found guilty of murder; but it is surprising that abuse rose to such heinous levels that the community protested and the case went to trial.

The gallows narrative of James Lane is the subject of “A Public End to a Life of Crime,” by Edwina Pendarvis. These narratives, popular from the late eighteenth into the late nineteenth century, were sold as broadsheets or pulp paperbacks, with the purported aim of turning others away from crime. During the Age of Yellow Journalism, these narratives provided lurid descriptions to titillate readers.

Multiple murders are the subject of several pieces, including “The Ashland Tragedy,” by Keven McQueen; “Feud Murders in Rowan County,” by Terry Diamond; “In Harm’s Way,” by Phyllis Wilson Moore; “Sunday Slaughter—Pike County, Kentucky,” by Edwina Pendarvis; “Together Forever: The Skyline Drive Murders of Don & Brenda Howard,” by Judith F. Kidwell; “A Parade of Horribles: The WVU Coed Murders,” by Geoffrey Cameron Fuller. I was surprised by Diamond’s account of the feud murders in Kentucky. The feud, which lasted from 1884-1887, was even more brutal than the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud. This Kentucky feud accounted for 20 deaths and 16 wounded. It grew out of corrupt state and local government following the Reconstruction Era. The spark that ignited the Rowan County War happened on election day over a hotly contested race for sheriff.

Another piece that caught my attention was “Charles Manson’s Ties to the Tri-State Area,” by James M. Gifford. Before reading this account, I only associated Manson with Hollywood. Yet he had strong ties to Ashland and Boyd County in northeastern Kentucky and to Charleston, West Virginia. It wasn’t surprising to learn that Manson, a sociopath, spent his youth in near constant trouble, bouncing from one form of incarceration to another.

Appalachian Murders & Mysteries adds to our understanding of murder, providing historical perspective. The authors try to lay out the reasons behind each of these criminal acts, but this collection leaves us pondering that unanswerable question: how could anyone deliberately commit such an irrevocable act against a fellow human?

Comments

  1. What a varied assortment of great reviews. Thank you!

  2. Phyllis Jean Moore says:

    A talented reviewer makes my book budget bend and stretch. These are intriguing.

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