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HARD ROW by Margaret Maron: Book Review

It’s strange how one series by an author can capture your interest from the beginning and another one can’t.  I read one or two of  the novels in the Sigrid Harald series by Margaret Maron, but they somehow didn’t catch fire for me.  But as soon as I read Bootlegger’s Daughter, I was hooked for the rest of the Deborah Knott series.  And I haven’t been disappointed yet.

The series started out with Deborah as an attorney/investigator, but over time she has become a judge on the circuit in Colleton County, North Carolina.  She’s the only daughter and the youngest child of the infamous bootlegger of the title in the first novel in the series; the bootlegger was married and widowed twice and the father of eleven sons before he met the woman who would become his third wife and Deborah’s mother.

This is definitely a series you want to start at the beginning because it follows a time line for Deborah’s life and loves.  Spoiler alert–in this book Deborah is married and a stepmother.  You need to start reading the series if you haven’t already, because Hard Row is number thirteen and you’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

Deborah and Dwight, who is the country sheriff, were married just a few weeks when Dwight’s ex-wife was murdered and their son came to live with the newlyweds.  At home, Deborah is finding that being a stepmother is definitely a learning curve.  Although she and Cal generally get along well, having an eight-year-old child was unexpected and provides a number of challenges that she hadn’t anticipated.

On the bench, the judge is dealing with a very hostile divorce case in which the husband can’t be found, while at the same time a number of body parts are strewn around the county.  I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say I wasn’t surprised to find out who the dismembered corpse was, but the motive for this gruesome crime was quite ingenious.  Also, there’s tension between the native North Carolinians and the newly arrived Latinos who are working in their fields.  These two issues seem to have nothing to do with each other, but Maron ties them together very neatly and believably.

There’s a definite down-home feel to the Deborah Knott books, partly because of the rural North Carolina setting and partly because of the heroine’s family.  There are a passel of family members–brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles, to say nothing of the family’s patriarch.  Although most of them do not play major roles in these books, they do give balance to Deborah’s life.  As I wrote in my March 9th column,, I find I enjoy books more when I know the back story.

There’s a similarity here to the Marcia Muller books about Sharon McCone, with that heroine also having a large family who sometimes play a part in the mystery.  But each author has her own voice, and the differences in the settings between country North Carolina and city San Francisco definitely add to the differences between the two female protagonists.

One of Margaret Maron’s greatest strengths is the way she makes her characters so vivid. You feel as if you’d know Deborah if you met her anywhere and you’d like her right away.  Her characters are human, believable, and fit comfortably in their own skin.  They make mistakes, but they  learn from them, and they have a code that keeps them true to their values.  You’d like to meet them and get to know them, and that’s the highest praise a reader can give to an author.

You can learn more about Margaret Maron at her web site.

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