Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Margaret Maron's South
by Sandra Parshall
Every year, Margaret Maron’s latest Deborah Knott mystery is an automatic read for me. I don’t have to see reviews. I don’t have to know a thing about the plot. All that matters is that it’s a book about Judge Deborah Knott, who represents the modern South better than any character in current crime fiction.
I prefer that the books be set in Deborah’s home state of North Carolina or, failing that, another Southern state, so I wasn’t happy when I heard that Three-Day Town (2011) was set in New York City. I shouldn’t have worried. Deborah and her husband, Deputy Dwight Bryant, take the South with them wherever they go, and they’re the same people on the mean streets of New York as on the back roads of fictional Colleton County, NC. I’m glad they’re back home, though, in this year’s book, The Buzzard Table.
Authors tend toward two extremes when writing about the South. Some go for humor, playing up the eccentric Southern characters (especially the wacky women), the regional speech habits, and the quaint customs that linger from earlier times. Suspense and thriller writers see the South as a dark and dangerous place, steeped in stubborn prejudice, filled with corrupt politicians and ignorant savages straight out of Deliverance, a place where outsiders are resented and feared, where most people own guns and are quick to use them.
All these elements can be found to a degree in the South, but it would be hard to find one place that fits either stereotype perfectly. Margaret Maron knows that today’s South, like any other part of the nation, is neither idyllic nor hellish.
Judge Deborah Knott is an educated professional woman who speaks with a Southern drawl and isn’t embarrassed by folksy colloquialisms. Nothing matters more to her than family, and she has a big one: eleven older brothers, their children and significant others, plus aunts and uncles and cousins. Her husband, Dwight, can act and sound like a classic good ol’ boy, but he’s a smart, honest cop who can’t be corrupted by racism, favoritism or payoffs.
Margaret Maron’s South has racists and poverty, but it also has educated black people in positions of influence. It has gays and northern transplants and drug problems and kids who drink and drive and sometimes die as a result. It has cell phones and internet service. Her South is changing with the times while trying to hold onto traditions that give the region its special flavor and charm. In that way, it’s no different from any other part of the country.
When I read a Margaret Maron novel, I know I’m getting an accurate picture of the real South she lives in and loves. Her books have a deep-in-the-bone authenticity that I find in few other novels set in the South.
Thank you, Margaret. You are a treasure.