Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thoughts on A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames


I don’t often review books on this blog, but this book had some lessons for me and did some unusual things with the so-called cozy genre of mysteries. Maybe Terry Shames would not call her new novel a cozy, but I would, and I find it remarkable for the way it breaks the “rules” of the sub-genre. There’s been a lot of talk among mystery writers about rules since Elmore Leonard’s death prompted the re-circulation of his list of rules. The general consensus seems to be you have to know the rules in order to break them successfully.

I was drawn into A Killing at Cotton Hill immediately by the voice of the narrator/lead character. Samuel Craddock is perhaps someone you’d not expect a woman writer to create. Once a small-town sheriff, he spent the rest of his professional life as a land man in Texas. He’s widowed, lives in a nondescript house in a small town—except inside is a fantastic collection of original art. He owes the collection, and his knowledge and taste, to the late wife he still misses.

Craddock is remarkable because he opens up his mind to us as readers. He ruminates, looking at a murder and at suspects from all angles but pretty much going on his instinct about people. It’s the rumination that intrigues me. I have been told by my mentor to stop rushing through my novels, slow down, and really let us see how people think and feel. Shames does this capably in what I believe is her first novel, and she’s sending me back to my work-in-progress in a new frame of mind.

I call this a cozy because it’s a slow, gentle mystery. The murder takes place off-screen at the opening of the book—one of the hallmarks of the cozy. But cozies are almost always narrated by women, amateur sleuths who happen onto murder in the course of their daily life. Craddock is not only obviously male but he’s no amateur—he has that background as a sheriff, and he has connections. There’s no love interest, though one widow in particular would like to latch on to him. Craddock doesn’t want to mess with the emotional swirls and tangles of romance—he’s still misses his wife, but he’s content with life as it is.

The other remarkable thing Shames does is to tell her story in present tense. I am impressed beyond words that she can maintain that point of view and make it work. Samuel Craddock, talking in the present, takes the reader every step of the way with him as he investigates the stabbing of his old friend, Dora Lee Parjeter.

Read this book. You’ll be drawn in as I was by Craddock’s slow, deliberate country wisdom. As I wrote last night, I just spent a couple days with my brother. He’s a Chicago kid who went “country” long ago, and he has that same quiet wisdom, that same instinct about who the good guys are and who are the bad guys, that sense of moral obligation, far different from religious piety. I admire it in my brother and in Samuel Craddock.

I’ve learned a lot reading this book (alas, editing called me away and I’ve not finished it) and from my brother. The “rule” they tell you about constant action, no description, just isn’t always true. Character carries the day—in fiction and in life.

1 comment:

Claire said...

Thanks, Judy, for this review of Shames' book. It does make me long to read it and I'm adding it to my "must read" list.

Creating a character who can carry the story throughout and make us reflect on it sounds about perfect.