Gone to Carolina in My Mind*

Have you ever been to North Carolina? Perhaps you live (or have lived) there? It’s a beautiful place, with an interesting mix of cosmopolitan, (sub)urban areas, beaches, and small towns. There are plenty of very rural places, too. And North Carolina is rich with history, beginning before the state was a colony.

On the surface, it’s a lovely, peaceful state. But just look at crime fiction, and you’ll see that a lot can happen, even in a friendly, small town or lovely city. As this is posted, it’s the birthday of North Carolina’s own James Taylor. So, what better time to share some fine North Carolina-based crime fiction?

For those who enjoy cosy mysteries, there are two series by North Carolina author Elizabeth Spann Craig. One features retired teacher Myrtle Clover. She lives in the small town of Bradley, where her son, Red, is chief of police. Myrtle may be retired, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be put out to pasture, as the saying goes. Much to her son’s chagrin, Myrtle gets very interested when there’s a murder, and likes to do her own sleuthing. She’s fairly good at it, too. She knows almost everyone in town, and, since she’s a ‘harmless old lady,’ she can go places and hear things that the police might not. Spann Craig’s other series features Beatrice Coleman, a retired art expert who moves to the small town of Dappled Hills for some peace and quiet after a busy career. That’s not what she gets, though. Through her association with the Village Quilters, Beatrice gets to know a lot of people in town – and gets involved in more than one murder investigation.

North Carolina has some prestigious universities and colleges, too. And Sarah R. Shaber gives us a look at higher education in that state with her Simon Shaw series. Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, who could have had his pick of any of the US’s top institutions. But he’s chosen to work at Kenan College, a small but selective and well-regarded school in a typical ‘college town.’ Shaw couldn’t imagine living and working anywhere but the South, and there’s plenty for him to do. As I say, there’s rich history in the state, and Shaw’s interested in a lot of it. For instance, in the first of this series, Simon Said, he’s works with an archaeologist friend to find out the truth about a long-buried set of remains that’s found on the old Bloodworth property. Part of it’s been deeded to the college, but that gift won’t go through without an investigation. So, Shaw looks into the family history to discover who the victim might have been, and who would have wanted to commit that murder.

Another look at North Carolina’s history comes from Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale, which takes place in 1758.  Plantation owner James Henry ‘Harry’ Woodyard is serving his term as a Royal Constable for Craven County. Usually, that’s mostly a matter of breaking up drunken quarrels, catching petty thieves, and other small crimes. Everything changes when the bodies of Edward and Anne Campbell and their son are discovered. It looks like a sort of ritual killing, and that it might have been the work of local Indians. And that’s not impossible, considering this story takes place during the Seven Years (French and Indian) War. Soon enough, an Indian named Comet Elijah is arrested for the crime. Woodyard’s known the man for a long time, and cannot imagine him committing these murders. And there are other possibilities, too. For instance, why was a brooch engraved with Masonic symbols found at the scene? Campbell wasn’t a Mason, so there has to be another explanation. Woodyard takes an interest in the case, and, despite pressure from the Craven County authorities to accept the obvious solution, he finds out the real truth. Besides the mystery at the core of the novel, readers also get an interesting look at life in North Carolina during its colonial history.

Barbara Neely offers readers another perspective on modern North Carolina. In Blanche on the Lam, we meet professional housekeeper Blanche White. Originally from New York, White moved to North Carolina, and, as the series begins, works for a housekeeping agency. Her job means that she gets a very intimate look at her clients’ lives. That’s especially true because she is black, while most of her clients are white. They tend to see her as ‘the help,’ rather than as an individual. That attitude makes her almost invisible, which is very helpful as she investigates. Two of the novels (Blanche on the Lam, and Blanche Passes Go) take place in North Carolina, so readers get a sense of the setting. Along with that and the mystery plots, this series offers a close (and not always comfortable) look at race relations and social structure.

And then there’s John Hart’s The Last Child, which is set in contemporary small-town/rural North Carolina. Thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon has been devastated since his twin sister, Alyssa, went missing a year ago. He hasn’t stopped looking for her, although his mother has all but given up hope. He has a map, a bicycle, and a plan, and is determined to find Alyssa, or at least, her body. One day, Johnny’s skipping school, spending time at a local river, when he witnesses a car accident on the bridge over the river. A man’s body hurtles towards him, landing nearby. The man dies but not before telling Johnny,

‘‘I found her…the girl that was taken.’’

This gives Johnny hope that Alyssa may still be alive, and he renews his search. Detective Clyde Hunt has also been looking for the girl, and is afraid of the trouble Johnny may find if he keeps looking on his own. Still, he respects the boy’s motives and effort, and he tries, in his own way, to help. Each in a different way, he and Johnny pick up the search for Alyssa, and relate it to the unknown dead man, and to another disappearance.

See what I mean? North Carolina is physically beautiful, with lots of rich history and interesting places. But safe? Well….

ps. The ‘photos were taken on Emerald Isle, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. See? Lovely!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James Taylor’s Carolina in My Mind.


Filed under Barbara Neely, Donald Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Hart, Sarah R. Shaber

42 responses to “Gone to Carolina in My Mind*

  1. mudpuddle

    interesting post and a slightly different locale… by the way, i wonder if any blogger ever considered running a challenge featuring a mystery from every state… if i had a blog, i’d do it myself(hint,hint…)

  2. Tim

    I spent a bit of time at Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills when I was a young and callow fellow. I appreciate your generous sampler of NC mysteries, and you sent me into research mode (see below). Who knew so many writers chose NC as their setting?
    BTW, John Hart’s book are must reads!

    • Thanks for sharing that link, Tim. Much appreciated. And I think it’s great that you had the chance to spend time in North Carolina. It’s a lovely state…even if there are a lot of fictional murders in it. And I’m glad you enjoy Hart’s work.

  3. tracybham

    Michael Malone is the author of three mystery novels that feature two policemen working in a small town in North Carolina. I have read the first two: Uncivil Seasons and Time’s Witness. I loved both of them.

    You have mentioned some authors here that I want to read, especially Barbara Neely, Sarah Shaber, and Elizabeth Spann Craig.

    • Oh, I do recommend those authors, Tracy. They all write different sorts of books, but each writes, in my opinion, very good stories. And thanks for mentioning Malone’s work. I need to dip into that more than I have.

  4. Kay

    One of my favorite series is penned by Margaret Maron – her Judge Deborah Knott series, which has now come to an end. I loved the way Maron sent Deborah to other locations in North Carolina to fill in for district judges on vacation, etc. It allowed us to see different parts of this beautiful state. She had one book that focused on the pottery industry, one on the furniture industry, one on the mountains in the fall, and then there was Colleton County, Deborah’s home, with her large, large family. The first book is BOOTLEGGER’S DAUGHTER.

    Also, my mystery group read and discussed John Hart’s newest book, REDEMPTION ROAD, also set in NC. Such a wonderful book with the very best writing, but a brutal tale.

    • Yes, of course, Kay!!! The Deborah Knott series!! How could I have forgotten that!? Thank you for the reminder. I like those novels, too. They’re quite different to her other series, and have a real sense of North Carolina about them. Folks, if you haven’t tried those novels, give yourself a treat and try them.

  5. I’ve never been to North Carolina, Margot, but I did write a character who’s from there in my second novel, The Half-Child. Even managed to slip in a mention of the James Taylor song 😀

    • I remember, Angela. 🙂 – And I’m glad you did, too. Hey, folks, if you haven’t tried Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney novels, or her other writing, you’re missing out. Give ’em a go.

  6. I like to add Neil Diamond – Sweet Carolina to complete the post with music, very intersting.

  7. Margot: I would like to add the trio of books in the Lighthouse Library series by Vicki Delany writing as Eva Gates. Set on the Outer Banks with a slightly altered real life Bodie Island Lighthouse as the library they are a charming set of mysteries.

    • Oh, yes, of course, Bill. Thank you for the reminder. Delany/Gates really has created a fine series there. Thank you very much for filling in that gap. She is skilled at evoking a sense of atmosphere.

  8. It seems like a whole lot of crime is happening in North Carolina – at least in the fictional version. I also like Ellery Adams’ series set in a small (fictional I think) town which I am glad to only visit virtually given the high murder rate 😉

    • Yes, indeed, Bernadette – it’s one of those towns I’d rather read about than visit, for just that reason. 😉 And you’re right; there is a lot of fiction crime going on in North Carolina.

  9. Lovely photos, Margot and some interesting books for me to look out for. North Carolina’s been on my mind recently too as I read another book set in North Carolina – Justice by Another Name by E C Hanes – crime fiction set in the pig farming community!

  10. kathy d

    At first I thought I hadn’t read mysteries set in North Carolina, but then my memory was joggled and I realize that I read several of the Deborah Knott series by Margaret Maron.
    I also read two books by Vicki Lane set in rural North Carolina. I enjoyed her descriptions, and am still puzzled over the protagonist having five dogs and letting them out all night to roam fields and forests, and then hearing them bark and howl all night.
    And I’m trying to figure out if Anna Pigeon ever set foot in that state.
    By the way, Vicki Lane has a beautiful blog. She is a terrific photographer and posts images taken in different seasons of the flora and fauna around her area. She lives far out in the countryside.

    • Thanks for mentioning Vicki Lane, Kathy. I’ll have to pay her blog a visit. I don’t think there’s an Anna Pigeon book set in North Carolina, but someone, please, correct me if I’m wrong. And, yes, Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series is quite well written, I think. And I like the main character.

  11. Thanks for the kind mention here, Margot! NC is a great place to write and set stories (looks as if you’ve been here, too 🙂 ) We have both mountains and beach, which gives a nice range of setting. Readers who are familiar with the area may see similarities between Dappled Hills and Blowing Rock, NC. 🙂

    • It’s always a pleasure to mention your work, Elizabeth. And yes, I’ve been to NC – it is lovely :-). I’ve not been through the whole state, just the Outer Banks and the northeast part of the state. But what I’ve seen is very pretty, and you’re right – very diverse. Lots of opportunity for setting for a writer, whether it’s beach, mountain, city, or really rural. And I love it that you took your inspiration for Dappled Hills from Blowing Rock. 🙂

  12. The only thing I know about North Carolina is that a friend of mine lived there for about 5 years and kept a horse and enjoyed riding there. I certainly had no idea it was the home of so many crime authors and novels!

    • Oh, you can find crime just about anywhere, Marina Sofia, even in a peaceful, quiet state like North Carolina… Your friend was fortunate to be able to have a horse and ride there. I love riding, but haven’t had the chance in far toolong.

  13. What an intriguing post, Margot. I love that you give us so many different ways to view a story. North Carolina is a great place for stories to abound.

    • Thanks, Mason. I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. And you’re right; North Carolina isn’t just a beautiful place. It’s a solid setting for a crime novel or series, too. And you could go from light ‘fun’ mysteries to darkest noir and have a solid North Carolina setting.

  14. Great list, Margot! You have put me in the mood for a mystery! 😊

  15. It’s not surprising so many writers pen books set in or about North Carolina — my own Rollin RV Mystery series starts on the Outer Banks (OBX), inspired by many years of visits there and one particular stop at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Readers who visit the OBX *must* stop at Buxton Village Books — the tiny shop is crammed full of wonderful books; the entire front area as you walk in the door is devoted to regional titles, and you’ll find books there you never knew existed. And the owner is fantastically supportive of writers and is happy to share her knowledge of the Banks with visitors. (Ohhh… now Carolina is on MY mind again… maybe it’s time to head East again….) Thanks, Margot!

    • Thanks very much, Ellen, for sharing your own experiences. Isn’t the OBX a gorgeous place? I’m not surprised that you’re inspired. And if I get there again, I”ll be sure to stop at Buxton Village Books. Independenet shops like that really must be supported.

  16. Wow, not having been to North Carolina I’d never realised that it was home to quite so many fictional crimes – I do love finding out about different locations through books, because no-one can visit everywhere and what better way to do so than with an intriguing mystery!

    • I couldn’t agree more, Cleo. That’s one thing I really especially like about reading crime fiction. One can visit any number of places virtually. And I didn’t really think about the number of crime novels that take place in North Carolina, either, until I started reflecting on it. There certainly are a number of them!

  17. kathy d

    I lived in North Carolina when I was six years old for a few months when my father was a union organizer trying to organize at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. It still is unorganized. I have few memories.
    A friend retired to Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks, and lives in a house built on stilts, which her elderly dogs have had to negotiate. She likes it there, and finds things to do, including animal rescue.

    • I didn’t know you’d liked in North Carolina, Kathy. I think it’s interesting, too, that your friend lives in a house on stilts. I’ve never been in a house like that, although I’ve heard of them.

  18. Col

    I have some of the Neely books to read at some point.

  19. I was like Kathy, above – my first thought was ‘I haven’t read any books with that setting’, but actually quite a few of them are familiar to me. And, I have visited North Carolina…

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