Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Worth the Worrying: Margaret Maron's New Judge Deborah Knott Mystery, CHRISTMAS MOURNING

Fans of Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott series will delight in number 16, released just in time to kindle the Christmas spirit -- family, friends, food, and even forgiveness. But as Judge Deborah Knott gets ready to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her marriage to Major Dwight Bryant, the chief deputy of the Colleton County (North Carolina) Sheriff's Department, her community is in chaos: After the recent auto accident deaths of two teens, a third in a coma, and a fourth so badly injured that she'll only be able to choreograph her cheerleading team, there's been an added one-car crash that's taken the life of popular Mallory Johnson, the "golden girl" of West Colleton High.

Maron's flawless narrative presents the possibility that this is "another" of those terrible distracted-teenage-driver deaths, due to cell phones, texting, and a touch of substance abuse. But Mallory has never indulged in booze or drugs, and was driving alone, on her way home. Knott and her husband are soon on their way to the "visitation hours" where the teenager's heartbroken parents endure long lines of neighbors and young people -- and where Dwight's canny mother, Miss Emily, lines up the first shreds of evidence that all's not what it seems in Mallory's life.

Deborah Knott hardly has time to explore the issues, though, because her large extended family is rushing with her toward Christmas, and even on her lunch breaks from the bench, she's racing to select and purchase gifts. And at home, there's the friction of living with Dwight's young son Cal, whose mother recently died. Not to mention the inevitable stresses among her siblings and half-siblings and in-laws and all their children, who are cousins closer than many siblings would be.

Moreover, Dwight's distracted by two more deaths, this time a pair of classic "bad boys" in the county. Only when Mallory's death and those of the Wentworth brothers start to connect will husband and wife -- or chief deputy and judge -- be on the same trail.

Each chapter opens with a snatch from a Christmas-related moment in a novel or mystery (I like the Agatha Christie ones especially!), and the movement of this dark cozy (or sweet noir?) pauses often for family scenes of affection and fun. Although there's plenty to mourn, and the roots of the deaths are dark and twisted, Maron makes it clear that life goes on, and can be good, even when bad things happen.

A chart of Knott's family is at the front of the book, and as a first-time reader in her series, I found it handy. It was the right amount of "boost" into a story that's already taken many twists (the 2009 volume was Sand Sharks) and clearly is headed into at least another volume. I was startled by Maron's trademark pauses in the action, interjected even as the detection and discoveries reach peak intensity -- and I was puzzled that Knott's friction at home with Cal didn't seem to resolve much over the course of this -- but I found plenty of suspense, and detailed views of rural North Carolina culture that make CHRISTMAS MOURNING very much a mystery of a particular landscape and community. It's a quiet pleasure to read; just be warned -- in spite of all the food mentioned, there are no recipes!

Which again says, this isn't a typical "cozy" offering. It's more intense, more unexpected, and more insightful -- as befits an author as seasoned and wise as Margaret Maron.

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