New Bern, NC – INTRO - Mystery lovers and partisans of the old North State can have two itches scratched at the same time. George Olsen has more.
If you've read any of the 15 books in the Deborah Knott mystery series you may have received a surprise along the way. Join the club.
"Right now the book that I'm working on I'm 15 pages into the book and I still don't know who's going to get killed, I don't know what the motive will be. I just start writing and wait to see what happens."
That's the author of the Deborah Knott series, North Carolina native and resident Margaret Maron. It seems odd a murder mystery writer who sits down to write and doesn't know when the body will pop up or who it belongs to. But while Maron may not know the who or when, she is firm on the where.
"I wanted to explore the state and look at some of the issues facing the state. I've written about race relations, I've written about the furniture market, I've written about the problems that are pulling at our coastal waters in Shooting at Loons, and I just try to look at the state take little snapshots and show where we are, where we've been and where we're going, so I start with the setting and I let the story flow organically from that setting. Once I'm in the place I look around and see who could be a victim and would have enemies amongst the people in that setting."
Her latest book is "Sand Sharks," set in Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington. This is actually a natural locale for her lead character, who is a North Carolina District Court judge in the fictional Colleton County and arrives at Wrightsville for an annual summer conference of district court judges. The conference is a real event and the judges have been kind enough to allow Maron to attend.
"Over the years a couple of judges have said you ought to set a mystery here, and a couple even had recommendations for who I could kill."
Setting also allows Maron to, as she terms it, "get quite emotional about how I love this state." Nevertheless, each book isn't entirely something the local tourism board might quote it its brochures.
"But I want to do warts and all, not just the beautiful scenic part. I want to look at some of the problems. For instance, when I wrote High Country Fall, that took digs at developers who wanted to put housing developments right at the top of the ridges, and touched a little on the air pollution we're getting over from Tennessee that's killing the trees."
Likewise, 1994's "Shooting at Loons" was set on Harker's Island and wove the sometimes contentious relationship between sport and commercial fishermen into its storyline. Still, she uses her mystery series to "write love letters to North Carolina" again, "warts and all" while perhaps removing a few warts from literary depictions of Southern families with her portrayal of Deborah Knott's large & messy family.
"Too often, people writing about the South, the family's are dysfunctional, they don't like each other, and I just wanted to show an ordinary family that happens to be a large family that like each other and enjoy each other's company. I just wanted to show a functional family rather than a dysfunctional Southern family which is too often the case."
In "Sand Sharks" Deborah Knott has recently added to her large family with a new husband and his young son. The book opens with an argument or was it an argument with her husband Dwight over a small clash she had with their child Cal. That provides Maron the opportunity to work in a regular comic device she uses for her lead character a three-way dialogue between Deborah Knott and her inner Preacher and Pragmatist.
Reads from page 17 "Until I felt the " thru page 18 " breaking on the beach."
"They are the two voices of her conscious. You have the preacher who says you must always do good and you have the pragmatist who says yeah, well, you should be good but lets not forget if we can help ourselves he's the one who will rationalize everything, and I started doing that because Deborah doesn't have a Watson, she's not Sherlock Holmes and doesn't have a Watson she can bounce ideas off of so she's going to be bouncing them off her own conscience, her own sense of what's right or wrong."
Maron says with Deborah Knott you have to suspend your disbelief that a District Court judge would find herself so often at the center of murders but beyond that she wants her character as realistic as possible. Hence, the event that has her preacher and pragmatist in such as uproar isn't a dense web of lies and deceit stretching back into her character's dark past but instead a debate over whether her husband and son should travel with a packed lunch rather than stop for fast food. In regards to the judicial system featured in "Sand Sharks," Maron's preacher is thankful the judges allow her to attend conferences and answer her questions, but the pragmatist recognizes the system's dark side and uses that to fuel another episode in the reading public's seemingly insatiable appetite for mystery.
"We like to think our judicial system is pure and everyone comes to it with clean hands but judges are politicians, they do have to run an election, they're not always appointed. I know there are judges who have things in their background, the way they judge from the bench, their actions aren't always pure and noble and in fact they're downright dirty, some of them, but so I took things I had heard over the years about various judges and gave them all to this one character so he would be despicable enough that he could make someone want to kill him."
Margaret Maron's latest book is "Sand Sharks" and is published by Grand Central Publishing. Maron will be in New Bern Saturday March 20th to deliver a lecture for the New Bern/Craven County Public Library as they begin their lecture series Tar Heel Voices, an exploration of works showcasing life and culture in North Carolina. The event starts at 2:00 pm at the New Bern Scottish Rite Temple on Hancock Street. I'm George Olsen.