Christmas Mourning, Margaret Maron
I always enjoy picking out some Christmas-themed reading around this time of year. Somehow I often end up reading mysteries, whose violent themes might seem a bit at odds with the season. Many of my favorite mystery authors have set books around the holidays. Is there a connection, I wonder, with the old tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas? Or maybe it's a recognition of the stresses that can come with the holidays, among family and friends as well as complete strangers. I hope it's not just to market the books as Christmas presents.
Margaret Maron has set two of her books featuring Deborah Knott, a district court judge in North Carolina, at Christmas. The first, Rituals of the Season, takes place in the weeks leading up to Christmas, as Deborah is preparing for her wedding to Major Dwight Bryant, the chief deputy in the Colleton County Sheriff's Department. This second book is set a year later, just before their first wedding anniversary. As the book opens, word spreads through the community that Mallory Johnson, a high school senior, has been killed in a car wreck. She is the latest of several teens to die in such accidents, some caused by underage drinking. But Mallory's death hits especially hard: she was a cheerleader, beautiful and popular, the Homecoming Queen, heading off to college and a bright future after graduation. Mallory was on her way home from a party when she died, and the autopsy shows alcohol and drugs in her system, No one can believe it; her grief-stricken father insists that someone must have spiked her drink. Then two young men are found shot outside their trailer home, one a fellow student of Mallory's at the high school. Is there a connection between these deaths?
Deborah is a lower-court judge who does not handle serious crimes like murder, but she usually finds a way into Dwight's investigations. In this case, her entrée is her family. She is the youngest of twelve children, and the only daughter. Several of her nieces and nephews attend the local high schools and knew Mallory. Through them she learns more about the girl, her family and friends, and about the accident itself. Meanwhile Dwight and his team are investigating the two shooting victims.
Woven through the investigations are the family's preparations to celebrate not just Christmas but also the couple's first wedding anniversary. Deborah initially collects much of her information during a morning spent baking Christmas cookies with her nieces, a long-standing family tradition. The Knott family, headed by the 81-year-old patriarch Kezzie, is a close-knit one, with farms and homes clustered together on family-held land. Dwight's family also lives nearby, and there is a lovely sense of family in these stories. Though the murder cases (and the victims) are never completely forgotten, they are balanced with the fun of choosing presents, bringing in a tree and mistletoe, watching Christmas movies with the nieces and nephews, and eating fruitcake soaked in the moonshine that Mr. Kezzie has supposedly stopping bootlegging. There is also a touch of romance, with the anniversary coming up. To borrow a phrase from Dorothy L. Sayers, this might qualify as a Christmas story with detective interruptions, one I thoroughly enjoy. I like the settings of these stories so much, both the fictional Colleton County and the Knott and Bryant families. I was hoping for a new one this year, which, yes, would have made a wonderful Christmas present, but it looks like I'll have to wait.