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BOOTLEGGER’S DAUGHTER (1992) by Margaret Maron
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
In my teens I discovered Ross Macdonald, an author whom I instantly admired and whose works I began accumulating. Among them was The Wycherly Woman. But after starting to read it, I quit after three or four chapters, thinking it a work atypically and unaccountably dull from this author, but also figuring that I’d give it another shot sometime in the future. The future was about a year or so later. That time around the novel proved as irresistible as Macdonald’s previous Lew Archer stories long and short had been, and I devoured it. The experience made me realize that mood and expectation almost invariably determine how I respond to reading matter. I’m guessing that many other readers, likely a majority, react the same way, whether to leisure or required material.
“Okay, but this isn’t a review of The Wycherly Woman,” you say; “it concerns Bootlegger’s Daughter. What’s the connection?”
Bootlegger’s Daughter is the first in a series of mystery novels starring first-person narrator Deborah Knott, the partner of a small law firm in the town of Dobbs, North Carolina, located in the fictional county of Colleton. The book was enthusiastically recommended to me years ago by a former college English instructor who at one point worked for a used-book store and who knew I’m a mystery fan. I bought a paperback copy but, until just recently as of this writing (early August 2017), it languished on a shelf.
The novel’s basic premise concerns Deborah Knott being approached by eighteen-year-old Gayle Whitehead, for whom she babysat when Gayle was a child, and asked to look into the brutal murder of Gayle’s mother Janie when Gayle was three months old. My problem with it is that although this request occurs fairly early in the story, it isn’t until halfway or a little further through that Deborah’s investigation really begins. In between she’s campaigning for a local judgeship. Amid descriptions of her activities at various political rallies, the reader is introduced to a number of personalities who are competing for the same position as well as to various residents of Dobbs and surrounding communities, relatively few of whom have anything to do with the mystery. This is a novel which could benefit from a cast-of-characters list, one confined to people essential to the crux of the story.
Just prior to Chapter Nine, I debated about whether to continue reading or quit. As this review makes obvious, I kept going, which led to a satisfying, albeit somewhat predictable conclusion, though the trip was a bit more sluggish than I’d have liked. But that’s where mood and expectation come into play. I was in the mood for a novel in which the detection element was predominant, and my expectation was that Bootlegger’s Daughter would deliver one longer than that in a novelette.
The first four pages of the Warner Books/Mysterious Press paperback edition contain brief enthusiastic excerpts from a multitude of newspaper and author blurbs, and other reviews. Several of them praise the novel by alluding to authors like Faulkner, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee, as well as to mystery writers P.D. James, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton. I must reluctantly admit to not having read the mystery writers. As far as the others are concerned, I can sort of understand why reviewers mentioned them, but based on this work I wouldn’t put Margaret Maron in quite the same league. Nevertheless, she does a very good job of conveying a sense of character, place, and cultural climate in lucid prose.
With the admonition that there are a few (and I mean only a few) instances of the N-word and the F-bomb, which might discourage some from reading it, I can recommend Bootlegger’s Daughter to those expecting and being in the mood for a tale which combines modern realistic mystery with a mainstream/literary approach.