In this book, Margaret Maron has two stories to tell. The first involves a dying man, whom Kezzie Knott finds lying on a back road through their property. It takes the police a while to identify him as Vick Earp, a local man with a history of domestic violence. He had a grudge against the Knotts, because he blamed them for the loss of his family's property. Kezzie Knott bought it from his shiftless father years ago, but Earp believes it was stolen away from him. He also had some run-ins with Deborah's brothers over the years. So the local paper, looking to stir up scandal, all but accuses Kezzie Knott of murder, and Dwight of covering it up to protect his father-in-law.
Deborah suspects that her father and her brother Haywood know more than they're saying. She keeps an eye on the investigation, but she is also following a mystery of her own. Her brother Will gives her an early birthday present: their mother's brass Zippo lighter. Sue Knott died many years ago, when Deborah was 18. She was their father's second wife. Against her mother's wishes, she married someone far out of her social class: a high-school drop-out, a convicted felon and a moonshiner, a widower left with eight sons. The marriage was a happy one, and so was their family life. Now Deborah wonders about the initials engraved on the lighter, "W.R.M." and the inscription on the inside, signed "Leslie." She knows that her mother met Walter McIntyre during the war, while she was volunteering at the U.S.O. And Sue told her daughter that though she wasn't in love with him, Mac "changed her life." It's too late to ask her mother, but Deborah hopes to discover more about Mac and Leslie, and about her parents. As she asks questions, the narrative shifts to flashbacks where we meet Sue and Mac, and then Kezzie.
As always, reading this book felt like meeting old friends again. I feel like I could almost drive through Colleton County without a map. I'd stop at the BBQ house one of the cousins owns, where the family gathers to eat, and then to play and sing together. The two mysteries in this story are both interesting ones. I knew Mr. Kezzie hadn't killed Vick Earp, but there were several other suspects with various motives. I did spot one clue before the detectives, which made me feel smart for a few pages, but as usual I was on the wrong track in the end. I enjoyed meeting the younger Kezzie Knott, and Sue, who has been a large presence in the books through her children's memories. And the final chapter is an interesting one. The younger generation of Knotts has been looking to diversify the family farms, once based on tobacco. Here they have hit on what I think is a brilliant idea, and I'd love to know how it works out.
I did have two quibbles with Kezzie and Sue's story, however, at least as told here.
Edited to add: I withdraw this quibble, and I apologize to Ms. Maron for suggesting that she is guilty of sloppy plotting. In fact, just the opposite: I've been re-reading some of the earlier books in this series, and it's clear how very carefully she plotted out the family story. In the second book, Southern Discomfort (published in 1993), Deborah and her father visit the family graveyard where Annie Ruth is buried. Deborah takes notice of her grave marker, which states that she died in 1944. In the third book, Shooting at Loons (published in 1994), Deborah meets an elderly man who knew her mother Sue and Aunt Zell where they were working in the USO. Deborah remembers the man in this last book, and he is one of the people she tries to track down for more information. What I did not take into account was that the first book in this series (Bootlegger's Daughter) was published in 1992. Though these books were published over a 23-year span, only a few years have passed in the characters' world. I've read other authors' comments on this challenge, in writing a long series. Sue Grafton, for example, chose to keep Kinsey Milhone in the world of the 1980s, though the books span 30-plus years. Margaret Maron took a different approach, in moving her characters forward in time, but not tying their lives to the real timeline outside of the books, if that makes sense. As I mentioned above, it is clearly the 2010s in this last book, but Deborah and her family are only a few years older than in Bootlegger's Daughter. I also noted that in Southern Discomfort, no one even has a cell phone, and running up to a convenience store to use their pay phone is taken for granted, while in the later books they have all the latest technology.
I think she rushed Kezzie and Sue's story at the end, in a way that felt out of character (even though I only met Sue in this book). *I stand by this quibble though!
But this just a quibble. I really did enjoy this return to the Knott family. Even if Margaret Maron feels now that all of their stories have been told, I hope that like Ursula Le Guin with the Earthsea books, she will discover that there are still some after all.