Monday, December 17, 2007

Mysteries and the Southern Landscape

First published in Mystery Readers’ Journal

By Sarah R. Shaber

When I decided to write a mystery, I was untroubled by thoughts of following Southern
literary traditions. The thought never occurred to me. I wanted to write a book like the
ones I loved reading—traditional mysteries with a cerebral bent. I was most influenced by Josephine Tey’s classic, The Daughter of Time. I wanted to mix history and mystery, with an amateur twist.

Once I started thinking about my characters and plot, Simon Shaw walked out of my
imagination and onto the page. I didn’t create him, he was just there. Simon is a
historian at a small college in North Carolina—a Pulitzer Prize winner and tenured
professor. He’s small and dark, like his Jewish mother from Queens, and stubborn in
pursuit of the truth, like his father’s Appalachian family. He is intrigued by “cold cases,”
old murders left unsolved, and I mean old!

Simon’s first adventure, in Simon Said, won the St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Award for best first traditional mystery. In it Simon investigates the1926 disappearance and murder of an heiress whose corpse had been unearthed on the property of the college where Simon teaches. In Snipe Hunt, which takes place on the Outer Banks, Simon finds the killer of an Army frogman who was murdered in 1942. In The Fugitive King Simon has accepted his avocation as a “forensic historian,” traveling to Boone, North Carolina, to solve a 1958 Appalachian murder.

I don’t like my books to be predictable, so the next two are a bit different. The Bug Funeral opens with a young woman asking Simon to help her investigate whether or not her memories of a past life are true. And Shell Game involves a tug of war between anthropologists and native Americans over an ancient skeleton, a struggle so intense murder ensues. I’ve also edited Tar Heel Dead, a collection of short stories by North Carolina mystery writers.

As I was saying, I thought I was writing traditional mysteries based on a British model.
Then one afternoon I read a definition of Southern writing—that it is invariably
about family, race, and the getting or losing of religion. I don’t think I’ve heard a
better definition of southern literature—and I was astounded to realize that I’m writing in
that tradition myself!

Simon is an only child, but he hovers between the traditions and beliefs of his father’s
Southern Baptist family in Boone, and his mother’s Jewish relations in Queens. He’s
a true Southerner in the best barbecue-loving, yellow-dog Democrat tradition, but
spiritually he leans more and more towards Judaism. The murders Simon investigate
always seem to involve the victim’s extended family. And as for race, Simon detests
the glorification of the Civil War and the display of the Confederate flag, and campaigns
against both in every book.

I’m glad I didn’t know any of this when I first started writing. It’s hard enough
to squeeze out those pages without the ghosts of such as Thomas Wolfe and
Carson McCullers perching on one’s pen!


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