The Buzzard Table, Margaret Maron
This is the latest in Margaret Maron's mystery series set in North Carolina, which feature Deborah Knott, a district court judge married to a deputy sheriff. She and her husband Dwight Bryant are often drawn into investigating crimes, though from different angles, since the cases rarely fall under Deborah's lower-court jurisdiction.
I always enjoy the mysteries, but what draws me to these stories are the wonderful characters and setting that Margaret Maron has created. Most of the books are set in the fictional Colleton County. Once a rural area, it is changing as family farms are dying off, the land sold to developers whose new homes bring in commuters from urban areas. Deborah's father Kezzie Knott is holding on to his land, which he bought with the proceeds from a long career in bootlegging, from which he has supposedly retired. Both the judge and the deputy hope that's true. He in his turn is a little ambivalent about having a judge in the family, though he helped her win an appointment to the bench after she lost her first election (the means he used were unethical but very effective). Deborah is the youngest of his twelve children, and the only daughter. She is a great character, smart, inquisitive, loyal, with strong principles and a good sense of humor - someone you can imagine sitting down with over a cup of coffee. It's interesting, though, that she has stated in two or three of the books now that she isn't much of a reader. That catches my attention each time, because it seems unusual; most of the characters I read about are themselves avid readers, including the detectives, from Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane to Corinna Chapman, and I can't off-hand remember another self-proclaimed non-reader. I find myself thinking of books to to recommend to Deborah!
The first books in the series were almost completely from her point of view, so we got to know her pretty well. The later books have alternated between her first-person narration and third-person narration, often following her husband Dwight and the members of his team, or sometimes other characters. This shift gives the stories a wider scope, allowing us to see the crime or the investigation from different angles, and sometimes giving us access to information that not all of the characters have. These include most of her older brothers, settled around the area on their own land with their children and grandchildren, as are other relatives from both sides of the family. Each case usually involves some of the many family members (there is a helpful Knott family chart at the start of each book). Deborah grew up with Dwight, a local boy who attended school with her brothers. He enlisted in the army after graduation, working in military intelligence, before leaving the service and joining law enforcement. They are raising his son Cal, who came to live with them after his mother (Dwight's first wife) was murdered. (Fortunately they are encouraging Cal to read, and in this book Deborah is reading The Hobbit aloud to him.) Dwight's own family also plays a big part in the later stories, particularly his mother Miss Emily, the principal of the local high school.
In the last book before this one, Three-Day Town, Dwight's sister-in-law Kate gave them a Christmas gift: the use of an apartment in New York City for a belated honeymoon. One of Kate's Colleton relations asked them to deliver a small package to her daughter in New York, the contents of which led to a man's death. Deborah and Dwight were drawn into the investigation, which was led by Lt. Sigrid Harald, the main character in an earlier series by Margaret Maron. Though it is labeled "A Deborah Knott mystery," I felt like she and Dwight were more supporting characters, and I missed them in the story (I didn't really take to Sigrid).
In this book, the tables are turned. Sigrid and her mother Anne have come to Colleton to visit Anne's mother, Mrs. Lattimore, who is losing her battle with cancer. Also staying in the area is Mrs. Lattimore's English nephew Martin Crawford, a noted ornithologist working on a book about turkey buzzards. When the body of a missing real estate agent turns up near the house where Crawford is staying, though, both Dwight and Sigrid start to wonder if the buzzards and their feeding table are a cover for something else. Then a young high school student also goes missing. He recently appeared in Deborah's court, accused of trespassing at the small county airstrip, where rumor has it the CIA routinely lands rendition flights to and from Guantanamo (Blackwater apparently got its start in North Carolina). Could he be connected to the missing woman? Sigrid rides along with Dwight on part of his investigations, learning about police work in a very different setting.
I very much enjoyed this return to Colleton. Maron ingeniously winds the different layers of the story together to a complicated but satisfying conclusion. The political elements make this story feel very topical, and while Maron makes her and Deborah's feelings about war and rendition clear, she is never strident. I can't say I ever gave much thought to turkey buzzards, but I learned more than I expected from the chapter headings, "taken from the official website of The Turkey Vulture Society" (apparently the birds that we in North America call buzzards are actually vultures). On a less gruesome topic, I enjoyed meeting the Lattimore/Harald family, as well spending time with the various Knotts and Bryants. I do wish Deborah's father had played a bigger part in this book, because he's one of my favorite characters. But we get to see the deepening relationship between Deborah and her stepson, which has had its rough moments. If it wasn't for the Double Dog Dare, I might even be tempted to go back again to the earlier books in the series.
This book has a lovely dedication to "Barbara Mertz, who extended a generous hand to a ragtag bunch of unknowns," one of my favorite authors, who is herself probably better known as Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels.