The cover of Margaret Maron ‘s latest (2008) Deborah Knott mystery Death’s Half Acre provides a wonderful visual. The murder of stark black ravens coasting against a darkened sky above an expansive, lush North Carolina field imparts a scary, ominous, Hitchcockian feel and promises a great mystery.
Unfortunately, promises made are not necessarily promises kept. Death's Half Acre needs to be weeded out.
Set in a picturesque farming community which is divided over increased development and the environmental impact that threatens its very way of life, Death’s Half Acre features an unknown killer, a murder disguised as a suicide, a suspicious death, dark and sinister motives, hidden secrets, blackmail, politics, and greed.
Death’s Half Acre by Margaret Maron opens on Easter Sunday with an appalling demonstration of absolute power and humiliation by Faison McKinney, a cruel and domineering preacher who imposes his ultraconservative religion on his family and congregation.
Changing tracks, Candace Bradshaw, a prominent county commissioner with a questionable rise to power is found dead in her home.
Then follows issues with political undertones, personal secrets, deception, land claims, and murder; independent and interconnected subplots threaded throughout the book.
If there are two words to describer Margaret Maron ‘s new mystery novel, they are complicated and confusing.
Perhaps to illustrate the point that in a small community everyone either knows or is aware of everyone else, Maron’s liberal infestation of characters –this reader stopped counting at 57— instead feels like the author is namedropping strangers. Many are related, some are connected, others are forgettable filler. Most lack the sense of depth and development that would encourage the reader to care and would have better served the storyline had then been simply left out.
Who done it, who’s in bed with whom, who can be trusted, and who are the recipients and perpetrators of deception is often difficult to decipher. The only truth, it seems, is few closets are entirely free of skeletons.
Margaret Maron writes with an almost vignette-like style. Thus information provided is barely digested and easily forgotten as new scenarios develop.
Death’s Half Acre improves during the latter portion. Maron demonstrates her skill by inserting a well-executed albeit short cat and mouse segment which provides and produces a real sense of excitement and urgency.
One can’t help but think more of the same peppered throughout would have greatly enhanced this mystery novel’s flavour.
Death’s Half Acre is a challenge to read and remember. A reduction in extraneous details and superfluous characters and a tighter focus on one or two well-developed stories would have exponentially made this novel a more enjoyable experience.