(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky SEP 11, 2007)
“Search ever after the truth—not the truth which justifies you or your pet theories to yourself, but seek truth for truth’s sake, and when you have found it, follow its lead.”
Margaret Maron’s Hard Row opens with a chart outlining the family tree of District Court Judge Deborah Knotts. Deborah is the youngest of twelve children and the only female; her family is so extensive that it is hopeless to keep track of everyone’s name. It is easier and more productive to focus on Deborah’s immediate family: her devoted husband of two months, Major Dwight Bryant of the Colleton County Sheriff’s Department, and her eight-year-old stepson, Cal, who is still grieving over the recent loss of his mother, Jonna. Deborah is walking on eggshells with Cal for the time being, since the boy has had to cope with a great deal of trauma at a very young age.
Deborah’s busy courtroom is a lively place. On a given day, she hears a wide variety of cases, ranging from wife beating to reckless driving. She also helps in the equitable division of marital assets for divorcing couples. Meanwhile, Deborah’s husband is struggling with an extremely grisly case; the body parts of an unidentified male have been found in different locations around the area. Although no one knows the name of the deceased as yet, it is clear that he was mercilessly tortured and hacked to death in a blind rage.
As is often the case with mysteries that take place in a rural locale, all is not placid beneath the bucolic façade. Hanon explores the ugly racial bias that many Caucasians feel towards the Mexican migrant workers who pick their crops and care for their homes. Marriages crumble as spouses try to cope with money problems, infidelity, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. The author also points out the special problems that beset farmers whose way of life is endangered by America’s changing economic circumstances and new demographics.
The tone of the book shifts frequently. Passages of light banter, gentle humor, and loving family conversations are followed by scenes of sickening cruelty and shocking violence. Deborah and Dwight each do their share to solve the novel’s grisly mystery, but this aspect of the plot fails to generate much excitement or suspense. The book’s real value lies in Hanon’s meticulous depiction of a particular time and place in North Carolina where a family’s roots run deep and people tend to look out for one another. For the unlucky ones, however, life is not as pleasant. Members of the underclass struggle to eke out a living under unhealthful conditions, with little to look forward to but tedious and backbreaking labor and an endless struggle to be accepted by an often prejudiced society.
- Amazon readers rating: from 39 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Hard Row at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Bloody Kin (1985) (a Deborah Knott prequel)
- Shoveling Smoke: Selected Mystery Stories (1997)
- Last Lesson of Summer (2003)
- Suitable for Hanging: Selected Stories (2004)
Sigrid Harald Series:
- One Coffee With (1981)
- Death of a Butterfly (1984)
- Death in Blue Folders (1985)
- The Right Jack (1987)
- Baby Doll Games (1988)
- Corpus Christmas (1989)
- Past Imperfect (1991)
- Fugitive Colors (1995)
Deborah Knott series:
- Bootlegger's Daughter (1992) / / /
- Southern Discomfort (1993)
- Shooting at Loons (1994)
- Up Jumps the Devil (1996)
- Killer Market (1997)
- Home Fires (1998)
- Storm Track (2000)
- Uncommon Clay (2001)
- Slow Dollar (2002)
- High Country Fall (2004)
- Rituals of the Season (2005)
- Winter's Child (2006)
- Hard Row (August 2007)
- Death's Half Acre (August 2008)
- Sand Sharks (August 2009)
- Christmas Mourning (November 2010)
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- Official website for Margaret Maron
- MysteryNet interview with Margaret Maron on Home Fires
- Who Dunnit review of Home Fires
- Who Dunnit review of Winter's Child
- Blog Critics review of Hard Row
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About the Author:
Margaret Maron was raised on a farm near Raleigh, North Carolina. She dropped out of college to marry a naval officer while working at the Pentagon. After living in Italy, they moved to Brooklyn, New York. Initially, Maron wrote short stories, but decided to try a full length novel when the short story market dried up in the 80s. Her first series was set in New York. Maron returned to North Carolina with Joe, her artist-husband, and had a son. Her second series is set in North Carolina.
A founding member of Sisters in Crime, serving as its third president, Maron is also a past president of the American Crime Writers League, and the 2005 president of the national board of Mystery Writers of America.
Margaret Maron's works have been translated into seven languages and are on the reading lists of various courses in contemporary Southern literature. They have also been nominated for every major award in the American mystery field.