Saturday, May 15, 2010

Southern Blizzards and Sweet Tea

Despite the presence of “North” in its name, North Carolina is undeniably a part of the U.S. better known, collectively, as “The South”. As such, the name tends to conjure up certain, predictable mental images: that of graceful antebellum mansions; huge old trees laden with heavy flowering branches, swaying gently in the warm summer breeze; and tall glasses of sweet tea (or perhaps something with a bit more kick, like Mint Juleps) being sipped by persons seated calmly on wooden swings or rockers, out on their sweeping outdoor verandas with views of the wide, quiet, sun-dappled streets. Always accompanying this pleasant picture of gracious Southern gentility are the mellifluous tones in slow, measured cadences of the local folks as they converse. One no more associates cold weather and blizzards with North Carolina than one would brownstones, Redwoods, deep-dish pizzas, or clipped Yankee accents.
It came as the most delightful sort of surprise, then, to find that Michael Malone’s Uncivil Seasons takes place in the middle of a bitterly-cold and snowy January, complete with a white-out blizzard... in North Carolina. The very unexpectedness of the setting immediately piqued my curiosity and my interest. 
Of course, Malone’s first paragraph hooked me all on its own, beginning thusly: “Two things don’t happen very often in Hillston, North Carolina. We don’t get much snow and we hardly ever murder one another...” (In case you’re wondering, the answer to the inevitable questions are “yes” and “yes”; there is certainly a lot of snow--as well as multiple murders--in the 300+ pages which follow.) More importantly, though, what follows is a fantastically well-told tale--full of interesting (and tormented) characters with twisted, intertwining relationships and strangely-mingled histories; all manner of hatred, bigotry, and jealousies; and tense race relations as well as differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. There’s a certain degree of seaminess, as the redneck underbelly of the town collides with the poshness (and implied “betterness”) of the blue-blood set. There are recurring echoes of troubles past, including war traumas (Vietnam--the story is set in the early ‘80s), sanitarium stays, and different degrees of “crazy”. There is industrial espionage, and there are labor issues and abundant political concerns. There is even, meandering through it all, a soupçon of love. (Granted, some of the latter falls under the heading “sick and twisted” or “unhealthy”, but... still.)
Malone’s protagonist-duo, which heads a motley cast of characters, is one of the best pairings I’ve come across in a long while. Lt. Detective Justin Savile (The Fifth, as his mother is always quick to amend--with capital letters, no less), comes from a couple of very, very long (influential, wealthy, entitled, proud, etc.) lines of original settlers to the Piedmont area. A recovering alcoholic, Justin is unhappy with himself and with the way his life is turning out, so he spends his non-work hours engaged in such pursuits as an affair with a married woman, acting in Shakespearean productions, playing the blues on his old piano... and constantly fighting off both the urge to drink as well as the demands placed on him by his family and peers to be more like them (which sends Justin straight back to the bottle in a vicious cycle).
Lt. Detective Cudbert “Cuddy” Mangum is Savile’s diametric opposite; where Justin is suave, handsome, and well-turned out, Cuddy is gangly, wears polyester suits bought at lower-end chain stores (and usually bearing the stains somewhere on them of that day’s lunch), and brash. (In a wonderful comic twist, the divorced Cuddy is also quite the romantic, wanting desperately to get hitched again, and hopefully to see his good friend join the ranks of all those enjoying connubial bliss. Cuddy takes great pleasure in bad-mouthing “Lunchbreak”--his nickname for Justin’s married girlfriend, whom Justin frequently meets right about the time of said repast...) Despite their outward differences--and those born of their upbringings and experiences--these two smart guys have become good friends as well as an effective working pair with complimentary strengths.
It is in their official capacity--as well as a familial one, for Justin--that they find themselves on a new case: solving the murder of middle-aged socialite Cloris Dollard--semi-wealthy heiress (of her first husband’s estate), plus state-senator’s wife (to Justin’s mother’s brother). Things are hardly cut-and-dried with the case, though. (Yes, despite the unassailable fact that these folks “rarely ever murder one another”.) Mrs. Dollard wasn’t just killed; someone really made sure she was good and dead. Certain well-hidden items are missing. The “usual suspects” all have alibis, and Mrs. Dollard wasn’t exactly the sort of woman anyone would want/have any reason to kill, anyway. 
When some of the missing items turn up in the bathtub of an alleged wife-beatin’, petty-theft-committin’ redneck (who had coincidentally just been shooting off his gun, in his home, effectively killing one or two of the several TVs he had stashed in his living room), well... the town is relieved; the case is solved! (Right?) Well, no. Justin and Cuddy are firmly convinced that the dimwitted redneck gunslinger has actually been cleverly railroaded into jail, and that he didn’t/wouldn’t have committed such a heinous act (let alone had the requisite brainpower to time everything so perfectly)--meaning the guilty party is still at large.
Meanwhile, the reclusive (and psychic!) daughter of the town’s wealthiest benefactor returns... with predictions and visions (and a few issues of her own). More deaths, disappearances, plus a couple of highly-colorful domestic disputes ensue. New females catch the eye of both Justin and Cuddy. Illness, devils from the past... and some of the worst weather Hillston, NC has seen in a very long time further obfuscate the issues. It takes considerable thought, reasoning, and a bit of luck for Justin and Cuddy to unravel everything.
This book is, obviously, a mystery... but it is really so much more than that. It reads like fine, classic Southern literature; Malone has a truly wonderful way with words-- in his descriptions, his depictions of the locals, and his sense of spoken language via its diction and pacing, there is such a lushness of prose, and it is a joy to read. In fact, this book took me longer to finish that a book of its length normally should have done; there were many instances when I found myself rereading a passage I’d just read--not because of a lack of understanding, but because I wanted to spend more time going over a group of words, wanted to savor the almost-tactile feel and rich sound of them as they rolled around my tongue and coursed through my brain. 
Fortunately, Malone wrote additional books in the series, so further visits to this little community, with its fascinatingly-quirky characters, all described in Malone’s honeyed words, is not only a possibility, but a certainty. Oh, yes, I’ll be visiting again--and you probably will be, too. 
GlamKitty rating: 5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible) 

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