Two murders fester under the blazing heat of a Southern sun, a testament that keeping secrets can be deadly in this historical mystery.
In 1932, Bead Baker is beaten to death by an unknown assailant. The unsolved murder and subsequent gossip tear through the town of Homeville for generations. Forty years later, the battered body of Bead’s granddaughter, Little Mary, is discovered on her front porch. Cotton Lee Penn was Mary’s friend. Cotton is pretty but also straightforward, unconventional, and walks with a limp, the result of a childhood bout with polio. Attorney Max Mayfair, retained by Little Mary’s fiance to clear his name, turns to Cotton for investigative assistance (“I’m hiring the smartest white person in Sussex County”). Her ability to skirt the bounds of acceptability and manipulate the pity of the townspeople allows Cotton to ask questions others cannot. She examines both crimes, convinced they’re related, as the narrative jumps between the 1930s and the 1970s. The suspects in Cotton’s time all have ties to the crime committed decades earlier. Did Sharp Dorn, the local minister who was a philanderer and abuser, kill Bead for putting ideas in his wife Verdie’s head? Did Dorn’s son, Ron, kill Little Mary? Or was it the hired help Zed Omen in 1932 and his grandson, Doug, in 1972? Cotton must wade through the layers of time and battle the tides of racism and sexism to find the truth and solve both puzzles. In this absorbing series opener, Lowe (In Albuquerque, Abandoned, 2016, etc.) brings the sultry South in both decades vividly to life. The acceptability of violence, especially toward women, is a shocking reality. Racism leads to false accusations, including a lynching following Bead’s death. The author does an admirable job of tying the two eras and two crimes together. She deftly drops a trail of crumbs from suspect to suspect, leading the reader down multiple paths before revealing the surprising truth in a climax worth waiting for. Cotton is an appealing protagonist, an unlikely choice for a sleuth in the rural South of the early ’70s.
This vibrant first installment of a detective series should leave readers looking forward to more adventures with the engaging heroine.