Designated Daughters, Margaret Maron
The publication of this, the 19th book in the Deborah Knott series of mysteries, caught me by surprise. I've gotten so used to authors announcing their upcoming books, usually months in advance. But the first I knew of this one was an email from the author on its release day last week. I immediately made plans to stop for a copy on my way home from work - a prospect that made my day brighter right from the start.
This is a series I really enjoy. It is set in North Carolina, in the farm country of the fictional Colleton County, where Deborah Knott is a district court judge married to a deputy sheriff, Dwight Bryant. They are raising his son by a previous marriage, Cal, whom Deborah recently adopted. Both of their families have roots deep in the area. Deborah is the youngest of twelve children (and the only daughter). Most of her brothers have settled around the family farm, raising their own families, as have some of their children in turn. At the head of the family is the patriarch Kezzie Knott, once the most famous moonshiner in the county, if not the state. He has supposedly retired, finally. His son-in-law the deputy sheriff certainly doesn't want to know otherwise.
This story is set in the heart of the Knott family. Kezzie's youngest sister Rachel is dying, lying silent and still in hospice care at the local hospital. But one afternoon, she suddenly begins to speak again. As the news spreads through the family, they gather at her bedside with longtime friends. Rachel's words are clear, but they don't always make sense, as she moves back and forth in time, with threads of story switching from person to person. Sometimes she speaks of her brother Jacob, who died more than sixty years ago in a swimming accident. Jacob's twin Jedidiah was so distraught that he ran off to join the army, only to be killed himself in a training accident. The twin tragedies have always weighed on the family, particularly their youngest sister. Rachel also speaks in fragments of an abusive husband, a terrible flirt, someone who didn't pay his debts, and a father unknowingly raising another man's child. She gives no names to these people, leaving the family to try and puzzle out their identities.
But her words have already threatened someone. While the family is taking a break out of the room, Rachel is killed, suffocated with a pillow. As Dwight and the police begin to investigate, they uncover the secrets behind Rachel's words. They also learn that Jacob Knott's death in a creek all those years ago may not have been the accident everyone assumed. While I have finally gotten Deborah's family sorted out (with the help of the family tree printed in the front of every book), I found all the secrets and the suspects a little hard to follow at times. But the two cases are brought to neat and logical conclusions in the end, though the family may not feel that justice has been done.
There is a third element to this story, which is reflected in the title. One of the cases that comes before Deborah's court is that of a brother suing a sister over their mother's estate. The sister was the caregiver for the mother, while the brother now shows more interest in the estate than he ever did in his mother's care. Through the case, Deborah meets a group that calls itself the "Designated Daughters." Its members have become the caregivers for aging parents or ill siblings or even aunts and uncles, the ones who accept that responsibility for the rest of the family. Some of the "Designated Daughters" are actually men, but the majority are women. One of the members has been defrauded by the agent who handled an estate sale, and they want Deborah's help. I know many people who are in the position of "Dedicated Daughters" (and sons). My sisters took on that role with my mother; I was too far away in Texas to do more than visit and provide long-distance support. Though the "Daughters" and through the Knotts, Margaret Maron explores the stresses on modern families, particularly with aging and illness, but also the fluid boundaries of what makes a family. As Deborah notes of her son Cal, "Maybe not the child of my body, but damned if he's not the child of my heart."
I always enjoy spending time with the Knotts, particularly Mr. Kezzie, and I sure wish Colleton weren't a fictional place.