In this thriller, a poet at a writers’ retreat digs into the past of a troubled North Carolina town, the site of a current string of murders.
Maria Pell happily accepts an offer to teach at the Daffodil Writers Retreat, lured by the company of fellow poets. The retreat is also near the childhood home of Amen Hotep Jones, Maria’s star pupil (now dead) when she taught poetry to inmates and whose verse she strives to understand. Cherapee County, Maria quickly discovers, is rife with racial uneasiness, a transparent mutual animosity between white and black townspeople. At the same time, her colleague Bo Bennett is writing a book on the history of the Creighton family, starting with Peter Creighton’s migration to the area in the 17th century. The killing of two Creighton descendants within the last year is problematic enough, but suspicions are bolstered by a possible murder (another Creighton) at the retreat. Breaking down Amen’s poetry ultimately leads Maria to dredge up the town’s past; this incites locals but may tie into the murders, which unfortunately continue. With help from her intermittent psychic visions and dreams, Maria searches for a killer, who soon comes looking for her. In Handy’s (The Untold Story of Edwina, 2016, etc.) sequel, Maria remains a curious protagonist, shaken by her husband’s recent infidelity and likely falling for Cherapee County local Ian Kincaid. Her psychic ability, meanwhile, is understated; spirits guide her, but Maria works her way toward a solution primarily with gumption and intuition. The author further exercises subtlety in dealing with race, from different forms of prejudice (overt slurs or micro-aggressions) to links to the town’s plot-relevant history. There are, however, effective thriller attributes, like the car tailgating Maria’s Mazda rental and clearly refusing to pass. Handy’s writing is concise and fittingly lyrical, packing a punch with few words: “Amen grew up in a world that caged his power” and “Words could set the world on fire.”
A witty sleuth as keen and profound as the art form she teaches.