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.