Review: The Buzzard Table by Margaret Maron

Format read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: Hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Mystery
Series: Deborah Knott #18
Length: 320 pages
Publisher: Grand Central
Date Released: November 20, 2012
Purchasing Info:Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

Judge Deborah Knott and her husband, Sheriff’s Deputy Dwight Bryant, are back home in Colleton County amid family and old friends. But the winter winds have blown in several new faces as well. Lt. Sigrid Harald and her mother, Anne, a well-known photographer, are down from New York to visit Mrs. Lattimore, Anne’s dying mother. When the group gathers for dinner at Mrs. Lattimore’s Victorian home, they meet the enigmatic Martin Crawford, an ornithologist researching a book on Southern vultures. He’s also Mrs. Lattimore’s long-lost nephew. With her health in decline, Mrs. Lattimore wants to make amends with her family-a desire Deborah can understand, as she, too, works to strengthen her relationship with her young stepson, Cal.

Anne is charmed by her mysterious cousin, but she cannot shake the feeling that there is something familiar about Martin . . . something he doesn’t want her or anyone else to discover. When a string of suspicious murders sets Colleton County on edge, Deborah, Dwight, and Sigrid once again work together to catch a killer, uncovering long-buried family secrets along the way.

A visit with Judge Deborah Knott is my Thanksgiving treat every year, although usually not with buzzards looking over my shoulder. Or over Deborah’s shoulder. Last year we were in New York for Three-Day Town and it was fabulous (see review), this year Deborah is back home in North Carolina.

Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott series is an excellent mystery series, usually set in Colleton County North Carolina, involving the crime-solving skills of Ms. Knott, who now sits on the county bench as a judge. In her first outing, Bootlegger’s Daughter, Deborah was just a lawyer, and she was, and is, that bootlegger’s daughter. One of her fears is that someday her daddy will appear before her in court, but it’s not likely. Her daddy is in his 80’s, and doesn’t seem to be operating a still any longer.

But everyone knows that he used to. Everyone knows everyone’s business in rural North Carolina. Deborah knows everyone’s business, too. If they don’t appear in her courtroom, her husband is second-in-command in the county sheriff’s department. She hears about most crimes, sooner or later.

The events in The Buzzard Table strike much closer to home for Deborah. Her cousin, Lt. Sigrid Harald, is down from New York, along with Sigrid’s mother Anne Harald, because Anne’s mother is one of the grand old ladies of Colleton County, and she is dying of cancer.

Another family member is visiting, a long-lost cousin. Martin Crawford is staying on the estate, studying Southern vultures. In other words, Martin is an ornithologist who studies buzzards. He’s also a photojournalist.

So is Anne Harald. Anne is an award-winning photojournalist, and there is something about Martin Crawford that seems familiar…she just can’t place where she’s met him before in a life that has been full of travel, chance-met people and exotic places.

But Sigrid Harald, skeptical New York cop that she is, is suspicious. She knows that Martin Crawford is lying about something.

Then people start dying, and Martin’s excuses and alibis seem just a shade too contrived. Especially when the buzzards give him away.

Escape Rating B+: The reasons behind the murders turned out to be chilling, but I don’t want to give the game away.

The build-up to finding out what was going on was a bit slower than is usual for this series. I think that may be because neither Deborah nor Sigrid was in actual danger this time. While that’s more realistic, it does drop the suspense factor down just a bit.

I definitely enjoyed seeing the development of Deborah’s relationship with her stepson Cal. That ended the story on a high note.

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Three-Day Town

Three-Day Town is a reference to New York City: James Cameron once referred to it as “the finest three-day town on earth”. In Margaret Maron’s very fine new entry into her Judge Deborah Knott series, Deborah and her husband travel to New York for a belated honeymoon. Their stay is longer than three days, because they become involved, as usual, in both family business and murder.

In 1942, a naive college freshman pilfers a risque and disgusting piece of object d’art from a college professor that she is certain is a complete poseur. In her 18-year-old certainty, she is absolutely sure she knows everything. She’s right about one thing, the piece is so vulgar, there are so many possible suspects, and the college is still so mired in puritanical values, that the theft will not be reported. It takes her almost 60 years to try to give it back, and when she does, it becomes evidence in a murder. But it’s still vulgar.

Judge Deborah Knott and her husband, Major Dwight Bryant, escape Colleton County North Carolina for week’s vacation in New York City. They’ve been married for a year, but this is the first chance they’ve had to take a honeymoon, between her sitting on the bench as a county judge and his duties with the sheriff’s department. It’s certainly a long-awaited vacation.

They’re borrowing Dwight’s sister-in-law’s apartment for a week.  It’s a co-op in a secure building close enough to the Theater District to see the lights. And they have a family errand to run–Deborah has a package to deliver from a distant cousin to that cousin’s daughter. It should be simple, and they should have a relaxing and enjoyable trip.

But things start going wrong the first evening.

The superintendant of the building is murdered in their apartment. And that package? It turns out to be the original disgusting sculpture from 1942-but no one knows the history yet, just that it’s vulgar and artistic. And then there’s the cousin. Cousin Anne is in New Zealand, but her daughter is the one who comes to pick up the package, and ends up investigating the murder. Anne’s daughter is Lt. Sigrid Harald of the NYPD Homicide Division, and she is on the scene visiting with Deborah and Dwight when the body is discovered.

Deborah and Dwight become involved in the investigation in New York, as well as familial crime-solving long distance–there’s a problem back in North Carolina that requires Deborah’s skills. This vacation turns out to be more of a Busman’s Honeymoon, but this couple is always happiest when they are crime-solving, until Deborah’s nosiness puts her in the killer’s sights.

Escape Rating A+: Three-Day Town was a treat! The story takes Deborah and Dwight away from their home ground but still shows them doing what they do best, solving a murder by poking their very intelligent noses into everyone else’s business. At the same time, the strong family ties that make me follow this series are very much in evidence. Deborah solves a problem for her cousins back home, and, best of all, Sigrid Harald is back!

Sigrid Harald is a police lieutenant in the NYPD, a tall, slim, angular woman who solves homicides and doesn’t have much of a personal life. Except that one very interesting man saw something beautiful in her that no one else saw, and because of him, her life and world opened up. If that description sounds familiar, it’s intended to. I think Sigrid Harald may be one of Eve Dallas’ literary fore-mothers. Except that Sigrid had a better childhood and a less happy ending than Eve, at least so far. It was good to see Sigrid again. I’ve missed her.

If you enjoy police procedural-type mysteries with strong female detectives, I highly recommend both the Judge Deborah Knott series and the Sigrid Harald series. Three-Day Town was a fantastic visit with both of these fine investigators, but if you have never met these women before, I would start with the first book in each series, Bootlegger’s Daughter for Deborah and One Coffee With for Sigrid.

The next Deborah Knott book will be The Buzzard Table, sometime next year. Another year, another dead body. Or two.  With buzzards in the title, it sounds like she’ll be back in North Carolina. I can hardly wait.

A Study in Sherlock

A Study in Sherlock is a new collection of stories inspired by the Holmes canon. I purchased a copy because it was edited by Laurie R. King (and Leslie S. Klinger). So far, I have not been disappointed by any work touched by Ms. King, and A Study in Sherlock did not break that tradition.

The authors who contributed to this collection are all well-respected mystery writers. I’m familiar with many of them. A few (Margaret Maron, Dana Stabenow and Charles Todd) are favorites. I even met Dana Stabenow when I lived in Anchorage. Alaska is the biggest small town in the world.

As part of their contribution to the anthology, each author told the story of when they were first introduced to Sherlock Holmes. Naturally, I tried to remember when I first met the world’s first “consulting detective”. When I was a child, my mom was a subscriber to Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. So, when I started reading, she got the Best Loved Books for Young Readers set for me. “Great Cases of Sherlock Holmes” is in book 4. That’s one mystery solved!

But the stories in this particular volume, like the proverbial mileage, vary. Some are actual Holmes pastiches. Some use the Canon as inspiration for detectival flights of fancy that barely relate to Holmes. And, some I liked, some, not so much.

My favorite Holmesian pastiche has to be S.J. Rozan’s The Men with the Twisted Lips. It is virtually a prequel to Dr. Watson’s own tale of The Man with the Twisted Lip, except this version of the story is told from the point of view of the opium dealers in the notorious Limehouse district, as they maneuver the observation of Mr. Neville St. Clair in his rented quarters over the Lascar’s opium den by Mrs. St. Clair, all so that Mrs. St. Clair will involve the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. This new point of view dovetails perfectly with the narrative we know. Excellently done!

The Adventure of the Concert Pianist by Margaret Maron is also very interesting. It’s a case that Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson solve on their own during the “Great Hiatus” between Reichenbach Falls and The Empty House. In fact, the adventure ends with Mrs. Hudson fainting at the sight of Holmes’ return from the “dead” in 1894.

Of the modern stories, the one that impressed me the most was The Shadow Not Cast by Lionel Chetwynd. Sergeant-Major Robert Jackson uses Holmes’ methods, along with the criteria used by an officer in the field observing an enemy position, in order to find the murderer of a rabbi and a financial reporter. The combination of Holmes’ analytical skills and a trained military observer make for one very astute detective. I’m very disappointed that there are no other stories featuring the Sergeant-Major.

There is a Neil Gaiman story in this collection, titled The Case of Death and Honey. All I can say is that I hope it is true. It would explain why Holmes’ obituary has never appeared in the London Times.

Escape Rating B+: The stories I liked, I really, really liked. The Startling Events in the Electrified City by Thomas Perry, and The Case that Holmes Lost by Charles Todd are two other excellent stories. On the other hand, there were a couple I liked but just couldn’t figure out why they were in this collection, and a few that just didn’t float my boat.

But that’s the lovely thing about collections–finish up a few pages, and there’s another story!