Two new crime thrillers from Appalachia, reviewed

Posted by | November 8, 2010

From Los Angeles Times, Nov. 7, 2010:

Crimes grow in rich Appalachian soil
Sharyn McCrumb’s ‘The Devil Amongst the Lawyers’ and Vicki Lane’s ‘The Day of Small Things’ find a rare mix of thriller elements in a particular region.

By Sarah Weinman | Special to the Los Angeles Times

Appalachia’s mix of strong religious ties, farming, crop cultivation and Cherokee Indian folklore produces a brew that might be even more potent than the moonshine the region was long famous for. As a result, the crime fiction that originates from Appalachia teems with pungent smells and sounds and is steeped in the roots of generations of families — and, of course, in blood, especially of past sins coming due in the present.

Devil Amongst the Lawyers

The undisputed queen of such fiction — even though she has repeatedly professed to loathe being categorized this way — is Sharyn McCrumb. Her series of eight Ballad novels, beginning with “If I Ever Return, Pretty Peggy-O” (1990) and most recently adding “The Devil Amongst the Lawyers” (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s: 336 pp., $24.99) explores Appalachian history and folklore through an autobiographical lens (McCrumb’s family settled in the western North Carolina mountains in the 1790s). Each book is set at a different historical point in time, incorporating real murder cases and pinned structurally on the rhythms of real songs; the series features generations of recurring characters — the predominant, and most beloved by fans, being Nora Bonesteel, a “wise woman” gifted with second sight.

While McCrumb pens a new Ballad novel only every few years, those looking for a fix will be well-satisified by the novels of Vicki Lane, who dwells on a mountain farm in North Carolina. She first attracted attention in crime fiction circles with her series featuring Elizabeth Goodweather, a 50-ish proprietor of an herb and flower garden with an open heart and a curious mind about beliefs she may not necessarily share. Those traits serve her well as an amateur sleuth looking into crimes in Ridley Branch, where members of militia groups, back-to-the-landers, believers in extraterrestrials and fundamentalist Christians all dwell together, uncomfortably enough to throw up a murder every now and then.

The Day of Small Things

With “The Day of Small Things” (Dell: 414 pp., $7.99 paper), Lane moves away from the series and more in a direction first traveled by both McCrumb and Carolyn Wall, author of the excellent 2008 novel “Sweeping Up Glass” (Delta: 336 pp., $15 paper). Lane uses a traumatic birth scene to introduce us to a baby whose mother, in a fit of pique from too many babies birthed already, names her Least — and proceeds to treat her youngest child with disdain, neglect and, occasionally, abuse.

Full article HERE

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