Friday, May 16, 2014

Blast from the Past! ...and speaking of explosions....

By Art Taylor

One of my favorite mystery writers—and one of my first and still best friends in the mystery writing world—is Margaret Maron, a brilliant author whose honors and distinctions have reached the highest peaks in the last few years. She earned the North Carolina Award (the state's highest civilian honor) in 2008; was named a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America at last year's Edgar Awards; and earlier this month joined Dorothy Cannell and Joan Hess in accepting Lifetime Achievement Awards from Malice Domestic. Over the last couple of decades, I've interviewed Margaret, written features on her work, and reviewed individual books for various magazines and journals, including The Armchair Detective, North Carolina Literary Review, and Mystery Scene, which recently had me pen a tribute celebrating her career. There's been interest as well in having me write a book-length critical study of her work, which I'd very much love to do—more on that another time.

In the meantime, however, I've been tasked with answering this week's question: Is there a well-known mystery in which you would have changed the ending/murderer? And while I understand why several of the folks on our virtual panel here have declined to name names or book titles, I hope I'm safe to pick a specific book by one of my very favorite writers without giving any offense. Home Fires by Margaret Maron was the first book which jumped to mind this week, in part because of how much I remembered focusing on this exact question when I reviewed the novel for Spectator Magazine (now defunct) back in 1998. My review then sparked some small dissent from local readers (Spectator was based in North Carolina's Triangle region); in fact, I recall a note from Sally Buckner, also a good friend and a renowned poet, taking me to task about my comments on the ending. Critics and readers beyond the state's borders also championed the book: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called it "One of the year's finest mysteries," and Home Fires ultimately earned both Agatha and Macavity nominations.

As you'll see from my review—pasted below in its entirety—I didn't disagree with the overall assessment of the book; I found it challenging and provocative and insightful and named it myself among Maron's best at that point. But as for the ending.... Well, I'd urge you to check out Home Fires to see for yourself.

And really, if you haven't already experienced Maron's books—both the Deborah Knott series and the Sigrid Harald books and the stellar stand-alone novels Bloody Kin and Last Lessons of Summer—you need to. She's truly among the best in the business.

Burning Issues

Margaret Maron’s Home Fires successfully explores the hot topic of race relations in the South but ultimately gets burned by its own devices

[Reprinted from Spectator Magazine, December 1998]

"Most popular mysteries are devoted to solving rather than examining a problem. Their reasonings put reason to sleep, abolish darkness by elucidation, and bury the corpse for good.... They are exorcisms, stories with happy endings that could be classified with comedy because they settle the unsettling....” — Geoffrey Hartman, “Literature High and Low: The Case of the Mystery Story,” New York Review of Books, May 18, 1972

Margaret Maron’s Home Fires is the best Deborah Knott mystery since series opener Bootlegger’s Daughter (Maron’s finest novel and a near-seminal work in modern detective fiction). Graced with Maron’s compassionate insight into characters both black and white, this ambitious new book offers a clear-eyed and often provocative view of race relations in the south, brought into focus by the burning of three African-American churches in the fictional Colleton County, N.C.

Home Fires has already been named one of the eight best mysteries of the year by Publisher’s Weekly, and the book deservedly seems poised to add more awards to Maron’s previous honors for Bootlegger’s Daughter (which swept the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony and Macavity Awards in 1993) and Up Jumps The Devil (1996 Agatha Award winner). But its obvious merits notwithstanding, Home Fires’ perspicacity is muddied when Maron blurs her focus on race in the last two chapters of the novel; when the mystery is solved, the book unfortunately reveals itself as a clear example of why literary critic Geoffrey Hartman faulted the genre over a quarter-century ago.

Home Fires opens with the burning of Balm of Gilead Church, then flashes back to events leading up to the crime, especially the conviction of three local teens—including district court judge Deborah Knott’s nephew, A.K.—for desecrating a cemetery. As the ashes fall from that first fire, suspicions about the youths’ involvement immediately spring to mind and draw amateur sleuth Deborah into the “case.” Adding to the plot’s intricacy and to the rich texture of its themes are Cyl DeGraffenried, an aggressive young African-American Assistant District Attorney who seems especially tough on the black teens she prosecutes; a 1970s black activist named Wallace Adderly who has—inexplicably, it seems—provoked the ire of DeGraffenried; and a trio of preachers who’ve seen their churches go up into flames. Many of these characters have stories to be told—and, in some cases, secrets to be revealed—and Maron deftly explores these personal histories, personal psychologies, to illuminate not only the plight of individual characters but also the tensions of the transcendent story of contemporary prejudice.

Maron is thorough in her presentation of different aspects of this topic. For example, Deborah comments that “There are very few of us who don’t have bits and pieces of cover racism embedded in our psyches.” Later, when Cyl DeGraffenried accuses Deborah of holding young white criminals to a higher standard and being softer in judgments handed against young black criminals, Deborah counters than Cyl herself asks for harsher punishments for her fellow African Americans than for convicted whites—perhaps to punish them for failing to be a credit to their race? Elsewhere, Maron poignantly underscores the fact that prejudice is not a one-way street when the seven-year-old daughter of one of the black preachers comments, “Mommy’s wrong, Daddy. These white people are nice.”

Maron’s treatment of such scenes is graceful instead of heavy-handed, telling without being preachy, and provocative enough that some readers may occasionally feel uncomfortable, questioning their own complicity in the “race problem.” To her credit, Maron doesn’t offer pat explanations, easy answers or a pacifying hopefulness. When Deborah looks out onto a playground of black, white and Asian children playing, she thinks, “Surely it was going to be different for them?” Maron’s choice of a question mark for that sentence says volumes.

Unfortunately, Maron displaces the central, critical importance of her themes when she forces the novel’s attention back to the world of clues and criminals—and especially because her choice of that criminal seems anticlimactic, if not at odds with her thematic concerns. I won’t unmask here either the party responsible for setting those fires or the petty motives behind the crimes, but suffice it to say that the ending reduces the provocative racial themes to the level of the red herring.

Throughout the Deborah Knott series, Maron has balanced—in various measures—her attentions to character and theme with her adherence to the requirements of the mystery genre. In Bootlegger’s Daughter, she melded the generic elements with the thematic ones to brilliantly devastating effect. In Home Fires, she undermines her own ambitions with a denouement which seems unworthy of the novel’s otherwise provocative excellence. As the mystery is explained, the mysteries with which the book struggles are also, to too great a degree, explained away.


Paul D. Marks said...

Good piece, Art. And also appreciate naming names (so to speak).

Susan C Shea said...

I have enjoyed many of Maron's Deborah Knott mysteries, but haven't read this one yet. Your central critical point is a good one and I've come across it in a few other mystery books - a theme that's more important than the domestic motives and that leaves me feeling, "Yes, but what about...?" Good post.

Alan Orloff said...

It was a very cool--and touching--moment when Margaret announced your name and congratulated you for your Agatha Award. Very nice.