Winter's Child, Margaret Maron, Grand Central, $6.99.
I am a Margaret Maron fan. Unlike many, many other Maron fans, however, I am a bigger fan of her Sigrid Harald series and her standalones than her wildly popular Deborah Knott books. I love the preciseness of her Sigrid Harald books - and the way the preciseness of the plots match the uptight, controlled Sigrid who manages to loosen up slightly during the course of the series only to suffer an eventual tragedy. But I've also enjoyed several of her standalones - notably Bloody Kin and Last Lessons of Summer. In both she ably demonstrates her masterful command of plot and secondary characters. I haven't visited Deborah Knott since I read the first one, Bootlegger's Daughter, but was intrigued by the plot description of Winter's Child and plunged in. For the uninitiated, Deborah is a Judge in North Carolina with deep family ties. In the last outing (Rituals of the Season) she married her cop boyfriend, Dwight Bryant. While there are certain complications - in the form of Dwight's young son Cal, whose custody is shared by his parents - it's a happy union, free of some of the angst that graces the lives of other couples in mystery-dom.
And while I love the uptight, no-nonsense Sigrid, I can see Deborah's charm. Her relaxed attitude, her positive approach to life, and her take charge way of dealing with a situation are extremely appealing. In this book Dwight needs Deborah desperately, as the primary case involves the disappearance of his son, Cal, as well as the disappearance of his first wife, Jonna, a woman who couldn't be more different from Deborah. Maron is such a pro that even though Jonna appears on not a single page of this book, as a reader you will know her completely. And Maron's entire method in this is to merely illustrate Jonna's relationships with her friends and family, to look inside her house and her workplace, and to ultimately illuminate her entire personality. It's a masterful job. The thing is, the technique is never apparent. It's told in a kind of cozy, good old gal style that makes you want to snuggle up and read some more. It's almost insanely appealing.
Deftly tying together a complex plot, several rich characterizations, all with the emotional currents that a character who has lost his son and ex wife is obviously feeling, Maron makes the whole beautiful thing look easy. Recently Thomas Cook visited our store - a master himself, he doesn't like to write series fiction, and has a hard time understanding why anyone (writer or reader) would return to the same characters, book after book. His efforts to understand series fiction sounded like this: he was watching the movie Little Women with his daughter. There's a scene where Meg is in the woods at night, delivering cookies. Being Thomas Cook, he thinks to himself, "Oh, this is the big rape scene!" But then of course he realized that "Wait! It's Little Women! She's actually going to deliver the cookies!" He thought that maybe series fiction delivered this same level of comfort, and really, I think he's right.
I think any lover of series fiction can attest that in a good series, the characters develop and change over time, and the more you read about them - at least in the hands of a capable writer - the more invested you are in them and the more you want to follow their lives. After a certain point, the mystery part is of course nice, but often (speaking for myself) I am just as interested to see what has happened to my favorite characters since the last book. And after having read Winter's Child, I now have to admit to being sucked into Judge Deborah Knott's world. I found myself looking longingly at a used copy of Rituals of the Season as I was shelving the other day. And sooner rather than later, I'm sure I'll read it. I just can't wait.
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