Last Lessons of Summer

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In the suffocating heat of a Southern August, Amy Steadman, heir to a merchandising and publishing empire, has come to clean out the house of her murdered grandmother - and perhaps find some answers. Beneath her quiet, accommodating manner, a storm is brewing.

For here in this gracious home, Amy's own mother had committed suicide when her daughter was barely three years old. The tragedy put an end to her mother's turbulent marriage to Amy's father. But the secrets surrounding ...

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Overview

In the suffocating heat of a Southern August, Amy Steadman, heir to a merchandising and publishing empire, has come to clean out the house of her murdered grandmother - and perhaps find some answers. Beneath her quiet, accommodating manner, a storm is brewing.

For here in this gracious home, Amy's own mother had committed suicide when her daughter was barely three years old. The tragedy put an end to her mother's turbulent marriage to Amy's father. But the secrets surrounding her mother's death live on. Sorting through her grandmother's things, Amy reflects on the parallels between her parents' relationship and the growing suspicions she has about her own husband, who may love her legacy more than he loves her.

As she rediscovers the tobacco-rich land where she spent her childhood summers, Amy meets relatives she never knew, and feels an unexpected emotional connection with the burly, knowing state investigator looking into her grandmother's murder. Suddenly, she begins to connect the dots between her troubled life and the heritage that shaped her. Yet the more she learns, the closer she comes to a murderous force who may be in her own family - one who will not hesitate to lie, deceive, or kill...

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
The relatives come flying thick and fast in Last Lessons of Summer, Margaret Maron's first Southern mystery outside her Deborah Knott series, and the family tree thoughtfully provided by the author is a godsend. — Marilyn Stasio
Publishers Weekly
Known best for her Deborah Knott novels (Slow Dollar, etc.) and her Sigrid Harald series (Fugitive Colors, etc.), Edgar-winner Maron has produced a standalone gem, set in North Carolina's Piedmont country, that focuses on a large matriarchal family. Amy Steadman, a toy company executive in New York City, returns to her Southern roots one steamy August after inheriting a fortune from her murdered maternal grandmother, Frances Barbour. Aided by Beth, her pouty younger half-sister, Amy sorts through furniture, books and other personal items in Grandma Frances's summer house, where Amy's mother, Maxie, committed suicide when Amy was three. Amy is determined to find out what was really behind her mother's death-and her grandmother's, too. Amy's many kinfolk, who pass in and out of the house, seem as kind and gentle as can be, but one of them is decidedly dangerous. Cousin Curt is poisoned with jimson weed seeds cooked into a jar of preserves, and another tainted jar turns up in Amy's refrigerator. Maron has a faultless ear for Southern speech, dotting her dialogue with regionalisms like "I might could have." A feast of clues and red herrings, the book builds to a climax that hits like a hot bullet blast. With oodles of characters to keep straight, readers will find the family tree at the start an essential guide. (Aug. 26) FYI: Maron is a past president of Sisters in Crime and a former board member of the Mystery Writers of America. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The good news is that Maron once again includes a family tree, so readers can keep track of who's who. The bad news is that this nonseries mystery lacks the vitality and finesse of Maron's award-winning Deborah Knot series. After 30-year-old Amy Steadman's grandmother Frances Barbour is murdered, presumably during a burglary in her North Carolina home, Amy becomes the primary heir of her estate, including the family business, which was built on a series of children's books written by Frances and her husband, Bailey. As Amy cleans out her grandmother's house, which is located on land valuable for its proximity to a new highway interchange, she tries-apparently for the first time-to learn more about her mother, Maxie, who committed suicide when Amy was three years old. Meanwhile she's worrying about her marriage, dealing with her immature half-sister, and receiving anonymous telephone threats. With a plot sometimes advanced awkwardly through dialog and prose sometimes bordering on trite, this disappointing book is only for devoted fans. Buy only where there is demand for Maron's works. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/03.]-Michele Leber, formerly with Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Temporarily benching Judge Deborah Knott, the southland's premier mystery writer (Slow Dollar, 2002, etc.) introduces an appealing new heroine who won't cost her a single reader. When Frances Barbour, the family matriarch, dies suddenly on her North Carolina farm, sweet-natured, soft-spoken, confrontation-hating Amy Stedman inherits a flourishing publishing/merchandising business-a big deal, though she feels cheated of answers to questions she'd always hoped her grandmother might provide about her mother. To help put her grandmother's estate in order, Amy leaves New York for North Carolina and the house in which she spent so many summers, the place where her mother was born and died 27 years ago, a suicide who left Amy only three. Once installed in the house, Amy finds almost nothing is as it was reported to be. Her grandmother's sudden death, for instance, was not the accidental aftermath of a random breaking and entering, but was planned and executed by someone who knew her. Her mother was not the self-loathing neurotic of family legend, but a victim not of her own making. To break down the wall of secrets and lies, Amy, finding an unexpected taste for battle, will have to confront an erring father, a condescending husband, and a vicious murderer. Well-plotted and suspenseful, with Maron's usual bonus: the ease with which she makes you love her scrappy heroines.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786258499
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 10/17/2003
  • Pages: 478
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.92 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Maron
Margaret Maron

Margaret Maron grew up on a farm near Raleigh and lived in Brooklyn for many years. Returning to her North Carolina roots prompted Marcia to write a series based on her own background, the first of which, BOOTLEGGER'S DAUGHTER, was a Washington Post bestseller and swept the major mystery awards for 1993. DEATH'S HALF ACRE is the fourteenth book in the acclaimed Deborah Knott series. Visit her website at margaretmaron.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Last Lessons of Summer


By Margaret Maron

Mysterious Press

Copyright © 2003 Margaret Maron
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0892967803


Chapter One


(July)

Honey blonde hair fell across Amy Steadman's small heartshaped face and she tucked a strand behind her ear in an absentminded gesture while her other hand doodled on a scratch pad where kittens and puppies romped in a meadow strewn with stylized flowers. Here in lower Manhattan, the weekly staff meeting of Pink and Blue and Max Enterprises was finally over. A new line of PBM toothbrushes had been licensed for sale in France, minor changes to the redesigned crib sheets and blankets had been examined and approved, and samples of the first consignment of PBM Halloween costumes had finally arrived from China and had been modeled by a couple of tots from the ad agency. The session had run long, but now only family lingered around the long conference table littered with tea and coffee mugs. Amy had let her mind go so idle that she barely heard the chatter about the house Sam and his girlfriend had booked in the mountains of Mexico and whether one could really trust the glowing pictures one saw on the Internet.

At the far end of the table, her half-brother, four years younger and ever the optimist, was once again ready to jump in feet first without checking whether he would land on water or concrete. "With the rent they're asking, the cook and gardener's wages have to be included." Sam turned his laptop around so the others could see the colorful pictures that filled the screen. "And take a look at that pool! It's damn near Olympic size."

Amy glanced at it, then went back to her doodling.

Her stepbrother Michael peered over the rim of his reading glasses in that patronizing manner he had adopted lately as his hair thinned and his waist thickened on his way to forty. Michael would never leap before looking. He and his wife Jane had booked their Alaska cruise months ago through their usual travel agent. "Didn't you hear how the Sefowiczes got taken for ten thou last winter on that Italian villa Missy found on the Web?"

Amy sketched a drop of dew ready to fall from a blade of grass into a growing puddle around a chubby puppy whose superior expression and faint eye circles made it look suspiciously like Michael.

"I don't see why we still have to go to the lake first," grumbled Beth, youngest of the Voygt family and the newest to join the company after scraping through with a nondescript B.A. from Binghamton last month. "It's not like we're kids anymore."

"Claire asks very little of you four," said Jeffrey. "It means a lot to her to have everyone there for that week. What you do with the rest of your vacation time is up to you, but you owe her a long weekend at the very least."

"And it's good for Jody to interact with his aunts and uncle," said Michael. "You'll be glad we've kept this family tradition when the rest of you start having children."

Beth rolled her eyes. "If it's such a great tradition, why are you and Jane dumping him on Mom and Dad while you go off to Alaska?"

"We're not dumping him," Michael said, offended. "Mom offered to take him so we could get away by ourselves for a few days."

"Yeah, right."

Beth had been with PBM Enterprises less than a month and was technically still a raw trainee who did not merit a vacation of any kind, much less the annual long vacation she seemed to think was her birthright. Although each of the others had, in their time, served real apprenticeships, working through the hot steamy days of August in New York, with only a short break at the family's summer home in New Hampshire, until they earned management status, they had thrown up their collective hands and decided to treat it as one more graduation present rather than argue with Beth about it.

Besides, so the family reasoning went, if it got her away from that creepy jazz guitarist she had recently picked up down in NoHo . . . (When Eric tried to give brotherly advice, she had acidly told him, "So he doesn't have a rich grandmother. Not everybody has your luck, Ivana.")

Time enough to sit Beth down and teach her the facts of adult life and adult responsibilities after Labor Day, when summer was over and everyone was rested and refreshed.

"Spain, is it?" asked Michael.

"Or Mexico. Sam says I can come crash on them till I hear if my friends are going to stay in Majorca or head up to Amsterdam." Michael was appalled. "You don't have your tickets yet? Do you know how much it's going to cost you?"

Beth shrugged. "I met a pilot last winter," she said vaguely.

"You could always come with us," said Eric Steadman, well knowing her reaction to such a suggestion. "Amy and I plan to walk another leg of the trail this year."

He had been watching Amy's pencil as it wandered almost aimlessly back and forth across the pad, crosshatching shadows here, defining a blade of grass there. In the five years he had known her, he had come to realize that his wife's doodles were a window into her unconscious. The tussling animals probably symbolized her siblings, who really did squabble like cats and dogs at times, but what of the small reptilian head to which her pencil kept returning, a head Eric had not even noticed until one casual pencil stroke revealed a pair of eyes there in a tuft of meadow grass? A lizard? A turtle? Or did she sense a snake in the grass lurking, half hidden, somewhere in or near the family?

"All you need are hiking boots and a backpack," he told his sister-in-law.

"Not in this lifetime," said Beth.

Eric grinned at Amy, but her eyes were now on her father, who continued to thumb through a manila folder jammed with papers that needed his attention today. Above the vacation chatter all she had heard was "-and you've received an offer on the property."

"Property?" she asked. "What property?"

"In Carolina. Your grandmother's place." Tall and dapper in a beautifully tailored dark suit that enhanced his thick white hair, Jeffrey Voygt pulled from the folder several sheets of paper stapled together. "Her doddering old attorney's under the impression that you're still a minor, so he sent the papers to me. Damn fine offer, too. Nine-fifty."

That caught everyone's attention.

"Nine hundred and fifty thousand?" Michael, who possessed an accountant's instinctive knowledge of market values, looked from Jeffrey to Amy in disbelief. "For that dump? Out in the country?"

Born and bred on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Michael seemed to carry a bubble of New York around him wherever he went, insulation from the world's less favored places, be it China, California, or, in this case, a run-down farm in eastern North Carolina.

Her grandmother's funeral this past spring was only the second or third time he had even seen the place since he was eight and his mother had married her father, but nothing had changed his first opinion. Amy herself was barely four when her father took them all down to introduce his new family, and they had not actually stayed in the house then, yet she still remembered Michael's disdain for the admittedly somber old farmhouse and the nondescript acres on which it sat. "No wonder your mom offed herself," he had said-words incomprehensible then and therefore burned into her memory forever.

Did he remember? she wondered now, wondered but would never ask because asking would open the door to his own questions, and all her life she had shied away from those questions.

At least Michael had managed to keep his disdain in hand during the funeral. But then Michael did everything correctly these days. Married to a high-minded woman and the father of a ten-year-old himself, he had been punctilious in his show of respect for the woman responsible for the creation of PBM, the woman whose imagination and talent gave them not only their daily bread but the fine wines they drank with it.

"Who in hell is crazy enough to want it?" he asked. "It'll cost a quarter million to whip that house and grounds into shape."

"They're not buying a house," Jeffrey Voygt said dryly as he handed Beth the papers to pass down to Amy at the other end of the table. "They're buying a commercial location. The house will probably be bulldozed. The state's building a new interchange there on I-40 and the farm is a prime site for a new shopping mall."

"Hold out for a million then, Amy," Sam advised her with a grin.

"A million? Oh, wow!" Beth skimmed the short cover letter enviously before handing it on.

Amy knew that her sister's recent interest in money-who had it, who did not-grew out of the fact that she had never given money much thought before now. She had never needed to. It was always there and as taken for granted as water from a tap or electricity from a switch, until June, when their father turned off the main valve and pulled the plug. She was still sulky because he had required her to start work immediately after graduation instead of letting her party around Spain for the summer with several close friends. Never mind that she had partied away so many of her college nights that it had taken her an extra year to graduate. Some of those friends were coming into family trust funds, and Beth's three siblings had heard enough bitching this past month to know that having to get up every morning and slog down to this job five days a week made Beth feel like a Third World water carrier.

She slid the papers on down the polished table top and there was deliberate malice in her voice. "Real awesome, Amy."

That old razor was still so sharp that Amy saw Sam's normally cheerful face darken with disapproval, heard his "Oh, for Christ's sake, Beth!" before she fully comprehended how deeply she had been cut.

"What?" asked Beth. Her wide blue eyes were as guileless as the blue sky beyond the window overlooking lower Manhattan.

Sam muttered something beneath his breath and went back to his laptop while Michael hastily tried to distract Amy by suggesting possible ways to tie the new mall in with PBM Enterprises. "Maybe we could get them to use Pink and Blue as a theme in the food courts, Amy? As a condition of the sale? You could even make a case that some of the story lines were developed there. After all, that's where Bailey Barbour was born and died. And Frances lived there for so long, she was practically a native, too, right? Even Max-"

"No," said Amy.

Curtness from her was so unusual that it stopped him in midsentence. Automatically, Amy touched his arm in mute apology and softened her words. All her life, even before her grandmother's death, she had been careful not to set herself above her siblings, to act as if they were all equals.

"It's not for sale, Michael. Not now, anyhow. At least I hope it's not." She appealed to her father, standing at the end of the table. "We don't have to make a decision right now, do we, Dad?"

"Not 'we,' Amy. You," Jeffrey Voygt said. "It's personal real estate, not company property, so the decision is yours. I wouldn't wait too long, though. You look over the offer and we'll talk later if you want."

"Fine." Amy stuck the lawyer's papers in her notepad, gathered up pencils and coffee mug, and left them. The instant the door closed behind her, Eric rounded on Michael. "Of all the thoughtless, inconsiderate-"

Sam chimed in right behind him. "Yeah, Michael. 'That's where Bailey Barbour was born and died,'" he mimicked. "You jerk! That's also where Max died and where Frances was murdered just three months ago, remember?"

"That's not what upset her," Michael said defensively. "It was Beth."

"Me? What did I do?"

"That's enough," said Jeffrey in a voice that reminded them who still held the reins at PBM. "Michael, I'd like those projections by tomorrow morning. Eric, doesn't your conference call start in three minutes? Beth-"

"Yeah, yeah, I know," she said with exaggerated weariness. "Back to the salt mines."

The singsong chant echoed down the years: "Awesome- awesome - A-meeee."

Amy closed the door of her office, but she could not shut out the hurt that threatened to dig up all the guilt she had kept submerged for so long. It had been years since she had heard those taunting words that set her immeasurably apart from the others, yet they rang in her memory as clearly as the day Michael first called her that, the day he abruptly realized what it meant that Frances Barbour was Amy's grandmother but not his.

Not his and not Sam's either.

It had been one of those command appearances whenever Frances came north: Sunday morning brunch at Tavern on the Green because Amy loved the crystal chandeliers and Mrs. Barbour loved indulging Amy on her increasingly rare visits to the city. All of the family were required to attend, even though Claire was in her first trimester with Beth and fighting morning sickness. Amy had been almost eight so she vividly remembered the tension around the table that morning, despite her stepmother's attempt to keep the conversation pleasant for the children. Grandmother was annoyed about the quality of plush in the new Pink and Blue models. Dad quoted figures and sources and costs per unit. Grandmother brushed his arguments aside.

"Cost doesn't matter," she had said autocratically. "Quality does."

She had then looked directly at the small towheaded girl seated next to her. "Remember that, Amy. You will have an awesome responsibility to the children who love Pink and Blue."

Amy did not understand the significance of her words, but Michael, soon to be thirteen, picked up on it immediately.

Until that morning, Jeffrey Voygt had been the most powerful person in his world, the man who had erased the worry lines that pinched his mother's face after his own father died, a kindly enough man, but a man used to giving orders and having them carried out. Watching as his stepfather acceded to the old woman's demands and promised to change the plush, Michael understood that Mrs. Barbour was even more powerful and that, in the normal course of events, Amy would inherit that power.

"Pink and Blue will be all yours," he said when the three children were alone. "All that awesome responsibility," he mimicked. "Awesome, awesome A-mee! Awesome, awesome A-mee!"

Sam had picked it up, too, as kid brothers will when they sense how much a certain name can cut even when they do not know why. When she finally went weeping to Claire, the only mother she had ever known, her stepmother made the boys stop teasing her.

"But you can't blame them for being a little bit jealous," she had told Amy. "It's only natural, sweetie. You're your grandmother's closest relative, and when she dies, why your father might actually wind up working for you someday."

Even as she said it, Claire's eyes widened and Amy realized that this was something new to her stepmother, too.

After that, it was as though something had shifted in their spacious West Side apartment.

Continues...


Excerpted from Last Lessons of Summer by Margaret Maron Copyright © 2003 by Margaret Maron
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2004

    Wonderful tale of family drama

    A fantastic story well-written and concieved. The book on tape was read wonderfully and the story drew me in. It is a fanatstic tale

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Exciting regional mystery

    Manhattan based Pink and Blue and Max Enterprises executive Amy Steadman returns to her North Carolina home following the murder of her grandmother, Frances Barbour. Amy inherits a fortune with the death of her maternal relative. She and her half-sister Beth clean out Frances's summer home, a place where her mother committed suicide when Amy was three.<P> Amy struggles with her two immediate female ancestors dying violent deaths. She needs to know who killed her granny and what circumstances led her mother to kill herself. She begins asking questions of her gentle visiting kin (use the family tree page to keep track). Soon one of these kind relatives poisons a cousin and tries to do likewise to Amy. Who amongst her amiable family is a murderer?<P> LAST LESSONS OF SUMMER is a tremendous regional who done it that will provide much pleasure to sub-genre fans. The story line is brilliantly executed providing readers with a host of suspects, plenty of red herrings (and preserves) and a powerful climax. The dialect takes some getting used to for those not from the Piedmont, but worth the time as Margaret Maron writes a powerhouse of a tale that will provide the author with numerous award nominations.<P> Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2008

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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