"Christmas Mourning" by Margaret Maron
Grand Central, 289 pp., $25.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James
From first chapter to last, Margaret Maron's sixteenth Judge Deborah Knott novel exhibits a masterful integration of her large cast of characters with a mystery grounded in the past of many residents of not-so-rural-anymore (and fictitious) Colleton County, North Carolina, about twenty-five miles southeast of Raleigh.
Moreover, the story opens one week before Christmas, with festivities woven merrily into the plot, marred by the death of a popular high-school senior, who flips her car on a straight road en route home from a party.
Then, another high-school student-- not as popular, with a far-from-sterling reputation-- is discovered shot dead alongside his older, also ne'er-do-well, brother.
Because both students were classmates of a myriad of Deborah's nieces and nephews (after all, she has eleven older brothers), and because Deborah and husband Dwight well recall the deceased girl's parents from their own high-school days, personal histories crisscross with the recent tragedies in both fresh and memory-fraught fashions.
While Deborah contends with her usually overloaded (now that there's a not-so-efficient district attorney) docket of district-court cases, Chief Deputy Dwight and other officers at the sheriff's department investigate the untimely deaths.
Regular readers of this series will recall that Deborah's and Dwight's first wedding anniversary falls right in the middle of everything. Now, its bad enough to have an "anywhere near Christmas" birthday, but a wedding? June is admittedly too hot, but there are other months.
Maron's mystery storyline remains deceptively simple, with artfully placed clues and a somewhat surprising (although completely logical) solution.
The seasonal rituals for the Knott (and Dwight's) family color the characters' relationships more deeply while gently prodding the action.
Mr. Kezzie's (Deborah's father's) story about the mule and the tangerines stops the show. He swears up and down that he has foregone moonshining, but there always seems to be yet another quart of peach brandy to season Aunt Zell's fruitcakes (heavy on the nuts, light on the candied fruit). Call him "Kezzie-wig."
Maron's thoroughly entrenched Southern settings further enhance one of the best Deborah Knott novels in recent years-- a praiseworthy mystery in every department.
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