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Newcomer revives old-style, murder-mystery genre

Let’s back this down from the erudite to the meat-and-potatoes of crime fiction and enjoy a good murder mystery well told – the kind that got us hooked on the genre.

Terry Shames is a newcomer, having published her first two mysteries in the span of six months, and on her way to becoming a doyen in the field of American crime fiction. Her first book, A Killing at Cotton Hill, published in July, introduces Samuel Craddock, a veteran police chief now retired from law enforcement in Jarrett Creek, Texas. Craddock is ethical, patient and admirable, actually lovable. His replacement, the brother-in-law of the mayor, is lazy, arrogant and a drunk. Nothing much happens in Jarrett Creek, but here we have a murder with a too-easy suspect, and Craddock is called upon to apply his customary common sense and investigative skills to avert a wrongful conviction.

Shames’s new book, The Last Death of Jack Harbin, will be released Jan. 7 and is another episode featuring Samuel Craddock. It stands alone and has a more intricately folded plot, as the title would suggest. After reading The Last Death, I rushed to read Shames’ first book, having been delighted with her upcoming release so much I wanted more of her great storytelling and vivid characters.

These stories take place in a small town, where everyone knows everybody and secrets become legends. Shames was after the small-town ethos in her first two books – not easy to do without getting cliché or producing cartoon characters and teasing out disbelief. But she is a natural storyteller and a skilled wordsmith. Each of these books has such power of place and personality that when you bookmark a stopping place, you have to reorient yourself to your surroundings.

The Last Death is a flinty story about two best friends who join the Army. Jack gets deployed to the Gulf War while Woody Patterson is rejected and stays home to marry the girl they both loved. Jack comes back disfigured and with an enormous grudge against Woody. Just as the two men are near to reconciling, Jack is murdered. The new, drunk police chief sniffs the wind and has Woody made up for the fall before he exhales. Jack’s love interest and now Woody’s wife – in addition to Jack’s motorcycle veteran friends – don’t like the quick call and come to Craddock for help. There’s nothing disturbing or sensational about this story; it’s a terrific read for a cold, snowy Sunday.

A Killing at Cotton Hill is a more interesting story about the murder of Dora Lee Parjeter, a local and well-liked character who provided a home on her farm for her young nephew after an automobile accident killed his parents. There’s inheritance yet unresolved for nephew Greg, and our feckless police chief has this one figured out before the ice cubes melt in his morning belt down at Two Dog.

Read one of these books, you’ll read the other. No question they’ll be nominated for the Edgar and Agatha awards.

JeffMannix.com. Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.

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