Margaret Maron is a state treasure. Since she returned to her Johnston County home after many years in Washington, New York and Italy, this writer of witty mysteries has also become a sharp-eyed chronicler of this region. In her series featuring Judge Deborah Knott, Maron holds her word-mirror to our fast-changing state, and measures the changes by also showing us what remains the same. The first of these books, the marvelous Bootlegger's Daughter--which introduces Deborah Knott and fictional Colleton County--swept up all four of the major awards in the mystery field, and earlier this month Maron won an unprecedented fourth Agatha Award for 2000's Storm Track, in which Hurricane Fran features prominently.
Now Judge Knott carries on in the very center of the state. Maron's new book, Uncommon Clay (Mysterious Press, 272 pgs., $23.95), is set in the Asheboro-Seagrove area, and uses the state's pottery heritage to contrast tradition and change. It could just about serve as an introductory text on the state's pottery history, if it weren't for Maron's insertion of fictional potting families into the historical narrative. As in all her previous books, the plot is so well constructed that the mystery remains a mystery right up to the end, despite the copious clues she strews in the reader's path. But it's the characters that make readers return to Maron again and again--that and Maron's gift for the local language, both in description and dialogue. Her people seem real in all their foibles, and their motivations ring true. Following them from book to book is like keeping up with the adventures of folks you've known all your life--although most of our friends don't make such a habit of finding dead bodies.
Mystery fiction as a genre doesn't get much respect, barely rating above bodice-ripper romances. Yet there is a great deal of very good writing being done within its formulaic constructs. The classic formula calls for some additions to the mystery puzzle and its attendant dangerous excitements: love affairs, a little sex, a lot of local color. The enhanced formula includes sensitive psychological studies, real character development and acute observation of the social milieu in which the story plays out. In Maron's work, we get all that plus the added bonus of secondary stories unfolding along with the primary plot.
One of the great mystery writers of all time, Dorothy L. Sayers, has one of her characters praise the form as "the purest literature we have," since good always wins out over evil in these stories. That has changed somewhat since Sayers was writing. We know it doesn't always work out that way in real life, but art sometimes shows us how things could be, rather than how they are. In one of her earlier books, Maron herself makes an ironically deprecatory dig at the category, having one of her characters declare, "Writers with something profound to say write poetry, writers with something serious to say write novels, but writers with nothing to say write genre fiction. I shall become a mystery writer."
In actuality, Maron does have a great deal to say, even if it is not profound. In her earlier series, set in New York, she often wrote about art and the art world--sometimes with hilarious mockery, other times with a touching lyricism. But her great theme is family and kinship, the ties of blood and marriage that bind people to each other and to the land and the work that goes with it. As the old joke goes, when two Southern women meet, the first thing they do is to figure out how, not if, they are related, and one of the great pleasures of Maron's books is how skillfully she plays this old Southern game of genealogy with her characters. Each book goes on a little more about Deborah's family--her daddy, her 11 older brothers, their wives and uncountable offspring; her aunt and uncle, her best friend and first cousin by marriage--and how they mostly stick close to their homeplace, but make the changes the times demand. In Uncommon Clay, this family theme is darkly reflected in the less happy Nordan clan, whose stubborn clinging to tradition brings, ultimately, sorrow, death and vengeance.
One of the difficult things about reviewing a murder mystery is that the reviewer can't really say too much about the plot, for fear of ruining it for prospective readers. So I'll just say that in this book, in addition to adding another piece to the mosaic portrait she is painting of North Carolina circa 2000, Margaret Maron has written another compelling morality tale. It is leavened with finely tuned language and interspersed with comic interludes, including the funniest he-done-her-wrong scene I've ever read. If you haven't enjoyed one of her books yet, you might as well start here--or go back to Bootlegger's Daughter, and scarf down the whole eight-course feast for summer reading.