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Book Review: Death’s Half Acre by Margaret Maron

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I recently discovered Margaret Maron’s charming Judge Deborah Knott mystery series. Before you get misled by the whole “judge” thing, let me assure you that these tales aren’t loaded with technical legal jargon you’re going to have to be up to speed on. Rather, if you’re not from the rural areas, you’re gonna have to learn ruralisms and add a bit of redneck to your diet.

Maron has carved out a space of her own with her Knott stories, and I look forward to each new novel every year. Deborah Knott has an extended, and complicated, family, and I’ve adopted them as my own. Sitting down with these books is almost like going back home to attend a family reunion. There’s business, of course, but there’s also a lot of gossip about what’s going on in the family and in the town.

This time around, the ecology of the town and the outlying lands take up a lot of Deborah’s — and the reader’s — attention. This is an issue I’ve been taking into consideration myself, especially since my hometown is starting to insist on bursting at the seams. I love the fact that every restaurant I used to drive to is now practically in my backyard, but traffic and population density have gotten to be problems. And a lot of the trees are gone. I miss the trees.

The murder in Death’s Half Acre takes a while to get discovered, even though it takes place in the opening pages. Maron introduces the other issues and the mystery almost sits on a back burner too long. Once Candace Bradshaw’s secret dealings start to slide out into public view, it doesn’t take long before another murder becomes necessary.

I like Maron’s characters a lot. Not just the family, though they’re a hoot, but also the various bit players. Candace Bradshaw reminds me of some of the hard-nosed women and girls I grew up around. Small towns are going to make those women as a byproduct every time because it’s easy to get ostracized in a small town.

The pacing was good, and I liked the subplot where Deborah’s daddy had to deal with the local reverend who was taking advantage of his flock. Maron ties together a television show and that plot very well, and I saw what was coming just ahead of the reveal, which is the best place to do that.

However, I was disappointed in how little Deborah was in the book at first. She was definitely in at the end, with her life on the line, but through the meat of the book she was conspicuously missing in action. I read these books to hear her “talk” to me, to nudge me and make me think, and to let me know that we have a lot of the same outlooks and values. Hopefully Deborah will be back on stage more in the next novel.

If you haven’t discovered this wonderful series, you can pretty much jump in with any of them. Maron lays out the family and the background pretty quickly, then you’re usually in the middle of the plot. These mysteries are great for the beach and for quiet, rainy days.

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