I’d seen Margaret Maron’s name on several books but I’d never picked one up. I found out I’ve been missing a delightful writer. Hard Row is the thirteenth novel of her long-running Judge Deborah Knott mysteries. Now that I’ve read this one, I want to go back and read the others, and probably will make time to do so. That’s the best compliment I can pay a writer.
That, and try to tell other people about the book.
So let me tell you about this book. In Hard Row, Deborah has just gotten married to Sheriff’s Deputy Dwight Bryant. They’ve moved in together, with Dwight’s eight-year-old son, and are dealing with the fallout of trying to mesh their lives together, figure out the pecking order of Deborah as stepmother, and handling Cal’s (the son) natural abandonment issues with his biological mother. She just picked up one day and sailed out of the picture to take care of herself.
The book opens with a prologue set in January at a bar. Hispanic migrant workers gather there to drink and socialize after work. One of them gets into a fight with a white customer who’s obviously spoiling for a physical encounter. This is just a little teaser that sets up the coming action. One of the things I’ve learned in this book is that Maron enjoys telescoping her plots and letting the reader catch glimpses of it along the way.
By the first chapter, we’re in court with Deborah as she deals with the fallout from the bar fight. The scenes told from Deborah’s perspective throughout the book are always told in first-person. I enjoyed hearing her voice on the page and peeking in at her thoughts. Maron is a generous writer and leaves a lot of herself on the page. But she mixes up the first-person perspective with third-person when Dwight and the sheriff’s office work their murder investigation.
Deborah Knott is a down-to-earth woman who grew up in the back hills of North Carolina. Her roots show in her speech and in the way she thinks about things. Within just a few moments, I felt like I had gotten to know a new friend. The pages whizzed by with astonishing speed.
The court stuff was interesting. Court cases and a chance to be voyeuristic on someone else’s troubles appeal to a lot of readers. I enjoyed seeing the small town trouble and how Deborah dealt with it. I grew up in a small town myself, so a lot of the people she was writing about seemed very familiar to me.
Chapter Two gives us a closer look at Deborah’s home life and gives us an idea of her relationship and history with Dwight and her new stepson, Cal. A minor family emergency occurs when Dwight gets called in to work a murder and Deborah is plunged directly into her new role as stepmom to save Cal’s evening. The boy is a big hockey fan, and he and his dad had had plans to go to a game. Deborah picks up the slack and discovers she has a love for hockey, finding yet a new way that her sudden family is going to work out.
As enjoyable as that all is, and given that the mystery smoothly moves into first gear, I was totally blown away by the events in Chapter Five. As it is in a lot of small towns, Deborah’s family owns land that they also farm. Over the years the land has been divided up between several families, which forces them to agree on how to work the land together in order to leverage the most profit. Discussion on which crops to grow, and the potential problems that may grow out of the growing, were intriguing. I grew up around a lot of that myself, but I’ve lived in the larger cities so long that I haven’t thought much of it. I enjoyed getting back to my roots by listening to Deborah and her family discuss these problems that loom so large in the lives of small towns.
The biggest part of Maron’s magic is that small community feeling that’s on every page of her novel. Readers will feel as though they know these people in this town within just a few short chapters. Not only that, but they’ll learn the legal system and the personnel involved with it as well. The vernacular and setting reminded me a lot of author Bill Crider’s Sheriff Dan Rhodes mysteries set in Texas.
In the beginning it seems as though Deborah and Dwight are working two separate cases. Deborah is trying to locate a husband in a divorce court proceeding while Dwight and the sheriff’s office are picking up pieces of a murdered man spread around the county. Of course, readers will probably guess that the two cases are connected (even though the body parts no longer are!) and that the two investigations ultimately lead them to the same place.
But it’s the journey Deborah, Dwight, and the reader take to get there, and the things that happen at home and between family members, that make this a real page-turner. You just can’t get enough of the family problems and issues that are ladled throughout the murder mystery. Maron provides a delicious concoction of puzzle and gossip that is guaranteed to keep readers up past bedtime.