Unchecked urbanization has begun to eclipse the North Carolina countryside. As farms give way to shoddy mansions, farmers struggle to slow the rampant growth. In the shadows, corrupt county commissioners use their political leverage to make profitable deals with new developers. A murder will pull Judge Deborah Knott and Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Bryant into the middle of this bitter dispute and force them to confront some dark realities.
About the Author
MARGARET MARON grew up in the country near Raleigh, North Carolina, but for many years lived in Brooklyn, New York. When she and her artist husband returned to the farm that had been in her family for a hundred years, she began a series based on her own background. The first book, Bootlegger's Daughter, became a Washington Post bestseller that swept the major mystery awards for its year-winning the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Awards for Best Novel-and is among the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century as selected by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Later Deborah Knott novels Up Jumps the Devil, Storm Track, and Three-Day Town each also won the Agatha Award for Best Novel. Margaret is also the author of the Sigrid Harald series of detective novels. In 2008, Maron received the North Carolina Award for Literature, the highest civilian honor the state bestows on its authors. And in 2013, the Mystery Writers of America celebrated Maron's contributions to the mystery genre by naming her a Grand Master-an honor first bestowed on Agatha Christie. To find out more about her, you can visit MargaretMaron.com.
Read an Excerpt
Death's Half Acre
By Margaret Maron
Grand Central Publishing
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One ... this is life, and there is no theory for it ... -Fiddledeedee, by Shelby Stephenson
NINE DAYS LATER
Tuesday morning's light mist lay over the field of young tobacco. It softened the air and turned the tall pines beyond into gray shadows of themselves. The recently turned earth gave off an honest aroma that was sweet to the old man who stood motionless to take it all in. Another year, another spring. Here in late April, the plants were only knee-high with no hint of the pink blossoms to come, their leaves still small and crisp and deep green. Everything fresh and young.
Everything but me, the old man told himself.
One of two dogs beside him nudged his hand with a muzzle that had, in the past year, become almost as white as his master's hair. The man looked down with a rueful smile. "Yeah and you, too, poor ol' Blue."
He scratched the dog's soft-as-velvet ears, then the three of them ambled slowly on down the lane that circled the perimeter of this field. Cool early mornings used to mean the beginning of another day of hard sweaty work-fields to plow, animals to tend, the hundred and one backbreaking chores that make up a farmer's daily life.
Back at the house, Sue and Essie would be fixing breakfast, rousting the boys out of bed, asking the older ones to fill the woodbox and feed the chickens, sending the younger ones off to school ...
The whole farm would buzz with meaningful work and raucous laughter.
He almost never thought about his first wife, but Annie Ruth had always liked mornings best, too. More times than he could count, she would be up before him. She scorned mirrors and plaited her hair by touch alone into a long thick braid as she looked out their window to watch the first light define the trees and fields beyond.
"Time to get moving," she would say briskly if he lay in bed too long to watch her.
Now his house was silent and empty every morning until Maidie came over to make breakfast; and even though he only piddled at working this past year or two, he still felt driven to walk the back lanes each day, to see his fields and woods as fresh and new as the dawn of creation, to make sure that everything was well within the borders of his land. Annie Ruth had usually been too busy to come walking, but Sue used to say, "Now don't you look all the pretty off the morning till I can come, too," and she would often slip away from the demands of the boys and the house to join him out here.
Together they would pause to enjoy the dogwoods that bloomed among the tall pines, to smell the sweet scent of wild crab apples on the ditchbanks or note that the corn could use a little side-dressing of soda to green it up. Away from the house and the boys, they could talk about the larger issues in their life together, the needs of someone in their extended families, or the help they might could give the proud man who was having a hard time of it. They could discuss what to do about Andrew or Frank and whether a good talking-to would be enough to keep those two out of trouble or if it was going to take a trip to the woodshed to get the point across.
Yet they had all turned out well, he thought, as he ran their faces through his mind, taking stock of his sons as he took stock of his land. The Navy had straightened Frank out; and Sue's patience and April's love had straightened Andrew. There were problems with some of the grandchildren, but they would come out right in the end, too. Of this he had no doubt.
A few feet ahead of him, the younger dog suddenly went on alert. He followed the direction of her point and saw a doe emerge from the woods at the far edge of the field. Behind her two young fawns hesitated, half hidden by the grapevines that hung down from the trees. Ladybelle gave an almost inaudible whine and Blue strained to see what had alerted her. Both of them looked back at him, but he gave the hand signal to stay and they obeyed. Nevertheless, the doe had caught his slight movement and she and the fawns melted back into the trees.
As the sun rose behind the pines and began to burn off the mist, he heard the sound of a motor and turned to see a small black truck slowly easing through the sandy ruts. He stood quietly until the truck pulled even with him and the driver cut its engine. The white man behind the wheel appeared to be in his mid-thirties and wore a gray work shirt with the name ENNIS embroidered in red on the breast pocket. His short brown hair had thinned across the crown but he had not yet begun to go gray.
"Sorry to bother you, Mr. Kezzie, but Miz Holt said you were out here and might not mind."
"Not a bit," Kezzie Knott said politely and waited for the man to identify himself.
"You probably don't remember me, but I'm James Ennis, Frances Pritchard's grandson."
The Pritchard land touched some that he owned over in the next township and Kezzie nodded at that familiar name. "You must be one of Mary's boys."
"Yessir." The younger man got out of the truck and extended his hand.
"What can I do for you, son?"
"It's about my grandmother, Mr. Kezzie. She's about to give away more of our land. Grandy might've left it in her name, but you know good as me he wanted her to pass it on down to my mother. It's been in our family over two hundred years and yeah, nobody wants to farm it any more, but it don't seem right for her to let somebody have for free what the whole family's sweated and bled for all these years. She says she's giving it back to the Lord, but it's not the Lord's name that's gonna be on that deed."
Kezzie Knott lit a cigarette from the hard pack that was always in his shirt pocket and leaned against the truck to listen to a story whose outline had become all too familiar in the past few years. Land you could hardly give away thirty years ago was now so dear that the income it brought in barely paid the rising taxes. The details might be different but the results were often the same-old folks talked out of their land for peanuts on the dollar value while some slick developer made a bundle. The only difference here was that the slick operator was a preacher and not a developer.
"She's always talked about you with respect, Mr. Kezzie. I was thinking that maybe if you could speak to her? It's not just for me and mine neither, but you remember Nancy, Mama's only sister?"
Kezzie Knott nodded. Frances Pritchard's older daughter must be close to sixty now and still had the mind of a sweet-natured three-year-old.
"He's promised Granny he'll take care of Nancy till she dies but you know how much a promise is worth."
"No more'n the air it's written on," the old man agreed. "Now I can't make you no promises myself, son, but I'll look into it for you and see what I can do."
If nothing else, he thought, there was someone in the deeds office that he might could get to lose the papers and snarl up the transaction with red tape for a few weeks.
Mid-afternoon and Cameron Bradshaw firmed the dirt around the last of the purple petunias, then sat back on his padded kneeling stool to admire his handiwork.
It might not be the English gardens he remembered from the tours he had taken with his grandparents before they lost their money, nor the showpiece he had tended before he and Candace split up; nevertheless, its beauty pleased him.
"A poor thing, but mine own," he murmured to himself. He pushed himself up off the stool, straightened his protesting joints, and tried again to remember who it was that said, "What every gardener needs is a cast-iron back with a hinge in it."
The sun was not quite over the yardarm, but he decided he would pour himself a drink, locate his Bartlett's, and bring them both out here to the terrace. Nail down that quote once and for all.
He knew from happy experience that one quotation would lead to another, yet what better way to spend an April afternoon than to sit here in his garden and sip good scotch, to turn the pages at random and let his mind wander through the words of history's great thinkers?
He crossed the flagstone terrace and paused to savor again the beauty of purple petunias, red geraniums, and silver-gray dusty miller. More geraniums and petunias trailed from hanging baskets. White Lady Banks roses were beginning to bud amid the purple wisteria blossoms that hung like clusters of grapes from the trellis that shaded his back door, and terra-cotta tubs of shasta daisies, basil, and dill stood on either side of the gate that opened onto a passageway to the street.
To his dismay, he heard the clip-clop of backless sandals hurrying up that same passageway.
He reached for the doorknob and wondered if there was time to get inside and pretend not to be at home.
As he suspected, it was Deanna.
Other men bragged about their children, he thought wearily-how bright they were, how industrious, how motivated to succeed, how thoughtful of their parents.
He had Dee.
Twenty-two years old. Bright? Yes. But motivated? Thoughtful of her parents?
Yet, as he stood motionless under the wisteria vines that grew over the small trellis above his door and watched his daughter fumble with the gate latch, he could not suppress the enduring wonder that he and Candace had produced such beauty.
Today she was dressed in white clam-diggers that sat low on her slender hips, a bright green shirt, gold loop earrings, and gold sandals. He gloomily noted that she had a black duffle bag slung over one shoulder.
Small-boned and deceptively delicate-looking, Dee had the wide deep-set eyes of his family. Their intense green came from her mother, though, as did her long reddish-brown hair. From the genetic pool, she had drawn his thin Bradshaw nose and strong chin. The dimple in her right cheek had skipped a generation and came straight from his late mother-in-law, one of those trashy Seymours from east of Dobbs.
Or so he had been told by white-haired colleagues who sometimes, when in their cups, waxed nostalgic about that dimple and, behind his back, wondered aloud if they had sired his wife.
He himself could not put a face to Candace's mother. Before they lost their money, the Bradshaws had sent their children to private schools, so he had no direct memory of Alice Seymour Wells or her husband, Macon, even though the three of them were native to the county and must have been about the same age.
As the gate finally clicked open, Dee spotted him in the shaded doorway.
"Mom's kicked me out again," she said, her full red lips poked out in a childish pout. She dropped her duffle bag onto the white iron patio table, where her father had planned to spend a peaceful afternoon. "Like it's my fault George puked on her fuckin' couch."
"You let him in the house?" asked Bradshaw, who still winced at the crudities young women so carelessly voiced today. "I thought she told you to quit seeing him."
"And I told her I'll see whoever I damn well please."
"Then she said, 'Not in my house you won't,' right?"
"Been there, done that, haven't you, Dad?"
"When are you going to quit yanking her chain, honey? If you're really going to drop out of college this near graduation, then don't just threaten to get a job. Do it. Stand on your own two feet."
"Like you do? Taking an allowance from her every month?"
His thin lips tightened. "It's not an allowance, Dee. And it comes out of the company, not from your mother."
"A company you started long before you met her."
"A company I still own," he reminded her. "And one that she helped build up to what it is today."
"So what? She couldn't have gotten her foot in half those doors without the Bradshaw name. And then you just gave it all to her and walked away."
It was an old complaint and one he was tired of hearing, especially since it was not strictly true. Yes, he had handed control of the company over to Candace when they separated, but it was with the stipulation that he would receive a certain percentage of the profits in perpetuity.
"I was ready to retire and it's an equitable arrangement." He brushed away a spent blossom that had dropped onto his white hair from the wisteria vine above his head.
"What do you mean?"
"She could be cooking the books, couldn't she?"
"Not with my accountant going over them twice a year."
"And how do you know she's not screwing him twice a year just to screw you?"
In spite of her language, Cameron Bradshaw was amused to picture nerdy little Roger Flackman in bed with Candace. She would eat him alive. On the other hand, that last check had been smaller than usual. He had put it down to her preoccupation with her new position on the board of commissioners, but what if she and Roger really were-?
"So anyhow," said Dee, interrupting his thoughts as she picked up her duffle bag, "can I crash with you for a few days till Mom gets over being mad about the damn couch?"
"Only if you start looking for a job," he said firmly.
"Believe it or not, I think I've already found one," his daughter said.
Some forty-odd miles away, in Durham, Victor Talbert, VP of Talbert Pharmaceuticals, opened the door of the boardroom not really expecting to see anything except the long polished table and a dozen empty chairs. Instead, he found his father poring over a sheaf of surveyor's maps spread across the table.
"There you are," he said. "I've been looking all over for you. What's that? Plans for the new plant in China?"
"Hardly," his father said.
At fifty-five, Grayson Hooks Talbert wore his years lightly. His dark hair was going classically gray at the temples, his five-eleven frame carried no extra pounds, and his charcoal-gray spring suit fit nicely without calling too much attention to its perfect tailoring.
He started to order his son away from the maps. Victor might be curious, but he would obey. Unlike his older son, who would have looked, sneered, and promptly forgotten, assuming he was sober enough to bring the print into focus in the first place. A grasshopper and an ant. That's what he had for sons. One clever and inventive, but mercurial and dedicated to hedonistic self-destruction. The other a dutiful plodder who ran the New York office. Reliable and utterly trustworthy and totally incapable of the flights of imagination and ambition that had built this company into one of the state's major players and its president into a power broker who had the ear of senators and governors.
Victor Talbert looked at the identifying labels and frowned. "Colleton County?"
His father nodded.
"Our subsidiaries are screaming for a decision about our eastern markets and you keep coming back to this? Why, Dad? I thought you were finished out there. You made your point with that bootlegger when you built Grayson Village. You've got a good manager in place and it's peanuts anyhow. Why keep bothering with it? There's nothing for us out there."
"You think not?" Talbert said. He rolled up the maps, gave his son explicit instructions about the subsidiaries, and said, "You going back to New York tonight?"
Victor nodded. "We have tickets to a play. Unless there's something else you want me to stay for?"
"No, I'll be up next week."
They walked down to his office together and once Victor was gone, Talbert told his assistant to order him a car and driver. "And tell him we'll be spending the night at the Grayson Village Inn."
From the windows of her corner office on the second floor of Adams Advertising, where she was a fully invested partner, Jamie Jacobson could look out across Main Street and see the courthouse square, where pansies blossomed extravagantly in the planters on either side of the wide low steps that led down to the sidewalk.
Another perfect spring day and this was the closest she had come to enjoying it since arriving at the office early that morning. Her own pansies needed attention and she had hoped to take off an hour in midday to enjoy the task. Instead, she had eaten a sandwich at her desk and tried to keep her mind focused on work.
A slender woman with sandy blond hair that had begun to sprout a few gray hairs now that she had passed forty, Jamie glanced at her watch and sighed. Five o'clock already and it would take at least another three hours to finish the presentation needed for a client first thing tomorrow morning.
She would have to skip supper and for a moment she considered skipping tonight's board meeting as well. As one of only two Democrats on Colleton County's board of commissioners, she wondered why she kept bothering. Unfortunately, a vote on the planning board's recommendations for slowing growth was scheduled for tonight and she could not pass up one last attempt to accept it, even though she knew Candace Bradshaw would use every trick in her bottomless bag to vote it down.
Much as Jamie Jacobson hated to admit it, the county's power brokers had planned well when they picked the newest chair of the board. Candace Bradshaw was as cute as a puppy and just as tail-waggingly eager to please the men who had put her in office and who now profited from the five-to-two decisions the board usually made under her chairmanship. A giggling, cuddly woman, she loved being chair. As long as the men pretended she held real power, she would do everything she could to make them happy, and if they wanted a controversial measure passed, she could be as tenacious as a little pit bull on their behalf.
Excerpted from Death's Half Acre by Margaret Maron
Copyright © 2008 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Not quite up to previous books in the series. She still has a nice, easyt flowing style of writing. Does not preclude me from buying further books of hers.
Death's Half Acre is an excellent - keeps you guessing until the end!
I have always liked Margaret Maron's books, this is one of her best. Great read, only problem was it was too short.
This is a very easy read and enjoyable series. The main person is Deborah Knott and her extended family. It is a mystery series which takes place in North Carolina. I enjoy this series and would recommend it if you like mysteries.
There are about 75 characters in this book. I could not remember their names, nor did I wish to, and certainly could not remember the color of each's hair as it was described. This is called "padding."
Colleton County is a fictional name for Johnston County NC where Maron lives. The #1 industry in Johnston County is hog farming. In NC there are 3 hogs for each person, and they all live in Johnston County. The hog farms are destroying the land and the ground water. Johnston County is not the bucolic setting Maron descibes. When driving through Johnston County on Interstate 40, one is forced to close the car's vent because the smell is so bad. If one drives along the smaller highways of Johnston County, one sees barbeque, gun shop, barbeque, gun shop. This is not sweet, wholesome countryside Maron likes to convince us exists. Maron always has a personal soap box. In this book she takes on the developers. Ask yourself this question: what would you rather have in your backyard, a new house or a hog farm?
A secondary issue for me is the way she portrays the speech of the country folk. I have lived in NC for 40 years, have known many fine country folk (they have lovely manners) but have NEVER heard even the most rural, under-educated, persons speak in the backward way Maron depicts. This is put on, an effort to convince the rest of the nation that North Carolinians are charming hicks. Maron lives about 30 minutes drive from the Research Triangle, Duke University, Chapel Hill, an area that accounts for more highly education professionals than almost anywhere in the U.S.
Maron needs to get off her soap box and inject some reality into her fiction!
This is the first Deborah Knott Mystery that I¿ve read. The foundation of this book is the changing rural environment. What was once a picturesque North Carolina countryside has become subdivisions. In the midst of change comes discontent, greed, and corruption. The best part of this book are the characters. They come to life on the page. While I certainly did not like all of them, I did feel as though I knew them. Read and recommend.
In North Carolina, rural Colleton County commissioner Candace ¿don¿t call me Candy¿ Bradshaw commits suicide stunning everyone. Sheriff¿s Deputy Dwight Bryant investigates to insure that Candace did kill herself even with the note she left behind claiming bad deeds, the woman seemed to have everything going. He soon begins to uncover why as greed, official corruption, and homicide seem to have tentacles throughout the county kickbacks to award construction of housing and malls is prevalent.----------- Bryant¿s wife Judge Deborah Knott is working mostly on small-claims suits that include many small farmers being squeezed off the land in a big government eminent domain grab. She worries these cases are going to cost her future in local politics even more than her reprobate father Kezzie, a infamous bootlegging con man who swears he is retired, but she assumes he is cooling his heels setting up his next sting.----------- The key to this cozy and the entire Knott series is how realistic the Carolina blue cast feels. Readers will enjoy this fine entry as Dwight struggles with a case that looks like suicide yet has some doubts while his wife worries about the impact of whatever her father¿s next travesty will be while also getting involved in the Bradshaw death. Readers will enjoy the deep look at development on the rural locals of Colleton County as fraud and bribery are the American way.----- Harriet Klausner
Dwight Bryant and Judge Deborah Knott are still learning how to live as a newly married couple and as full-time parents to Dwight¿s son Cal. What they don¿t expect is yet another murder that hits too close to home and draws Deborah in once again to the middle of all the action but in a way you would never expect or anticipate. When a business woman is found dead under mysterious conditions Dwight is called out with his homicide team to investigate while Deborah is doing some investigating of her own. Not the murder, per se but along with her brother Will she is going through articles by a deceased newspaperman that has him speculating and drawing conclusions that there was a connections between Deborah¿s father Kezzie Knott and his old nemesis G. Hooks Talbert. There is mystery surrounding how Talbert was able to convince a conservative Republican governor to appoint a yellow dog Democratic woman to the bench that more than one person questioned. This was more than this newspaperman could stand and prior to his death he was drawing too many arrows that pointed to Mr. Kezzie pulling something that was not quite on the up and up. Deborah knows how everything had come down and what involvement her father Mr. Kezzie had in the events. She also knows that her last wish is for anyone to discover that perhaps the appointment may have been just a shade to the left of upstanding. When another murder occurs and things really heat up for Dwight as he tries to figure out why anyone would kill what appears to be an innocent teenager and the daughter of the first victim. Too many coincidences and bad leads are pulling him in every direction but the correct one ¿ or so it seems. Deborah is not only dealing with her own mystery but also what is going on with her father and his sudden desire to ¿get right with the lord¿. Is a fast talking preacher swindling Mr. Kezzie out of his land that he holds so dear or could it be something else again that he is up to since his favorite past time is playing his cards close to his vest and keeping his children in the dark about his personal affairs! This latest book in the series is again what makes the mystery genre so great and Ms. Maron such an amazing writer. There is a detailed and carefully laid out plot with enough characters to keep the story fresh and the reader entertained. With all of Ms. Maron¿s books you never know until the final chapter how this will all resolve itself and when you are done with the final page you start all over again ¿ it is that good! Every book in this series is great but this one in particular highlighted the depth of both Deborah and Dwight as not only professionals in their chosen fields but also as a couple trying to figure out how to live together and be parents to a small boy who misses his mother. The other factor as always is the large family that is always drawn into the story and plot as well and showcases how diverse each member of a family is no matter what the size and having Will be center stage is always a plus since he never fails to pull a fast one somewhere down the line.