Mysteries South of the Mason-Dixon Line, Part I

Volume 18, No. 4, Winter 2002-2003

Southern Mysteries I

Buy this back issue! Available in hardcopy or as a downloadable PDF.


  • Carolina Crimes: A Selected Bibliography by Marsha McCurley
  • Southern Discomfort by J. Kingston Pierce


  • A Matter of Pedigree: The Southern Regional Mystery As Written by Women by Deborah Adams
  • Because It’s There by Noreen Ayres
  • Cemeteries, Scandal, and Southern Secrets by Mignon F. Ballard
  • Southern Society by Carolyn Cain
  • Me and the South by Taffy Cannon
  • Dying To Be Southern by Judy Fitzwater
  • Song of the South by David Fulmer
  • How Can a Novel Set in Chicago Be a Southern Story? by S. Scott Gaille
  • A Carpetbagger in Paradise by Chris Gavaler
  • It’s All Here in the South by Malinda M. Hall
  • Southern Pleasures by Carolyn Hart
  • True Grits by Joan Hess
  • Southern Accents by David Hunter
  • Big Easy Living by Pauline Baird Jones
  • Writing What I Know… About the South by Toni L. P. Kelner
  • A Romp in the Swamp by Dallari Landry
  • Keeping It Southern (When You Just Cain’t Say Cain’t) by Margaret Maron
  • The Mystery of New Orleans by Jillian McCade
  • Hot Southern Nights by John Miller
  • Sea-Born Women by B.J. Mountford
  • Why Everybody Wants To Live Inside a Southern Mystery by Tim Myers
  • Plunging Into Perversity by Rosemary Poole-Carter
  • The Southern Tie That Binds by Ann Vaughn Richards
  • Bookwhipped: A Short Study of How English and Southern Mysteries Subjugate the Innocent Reader by Mary Saums
  • Professor Shaw and Southern-ness by Sarah R. Shaber
  • From Southern California to South Texas by Barbara Burnett Smith
  • Spanish Moss in My Hair by Patricia Sprinkle
  • Half a Fiction-Writer’s Work by Elizabeth Daniels Squire
  • Hard South by Andy Straka
  • Of Mint Juleps and Murder by P.M. Terrell
  • I Would Have Used a Pseudonym, But I Couldn’t Keep the Pasties On by L.M. Young


Southern Pleasures
by Carolyn Hart (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)

Soft voices that croon words as if they were babies to be cosseted, smiling faces that ease a day’s tribulations better than any shot of whisky, a sense of belonging that time or space or distance or loss can never destroy, a rueful yet accepting certainty that the past is always prologue, these are the mainstays of Southern character.

I grew up in Oklahoma which is not part of the Deep South but it is very much a state with a deep Southern heritage. Being Southern is not so much a matter of geography as a matter of culture. My parents were both Texans and, as all Texans know, much of that grand and glorious state was settled by those who left the South after the War between the States. My Southern attitudes and sympathies had this beginning and I felt very much at home when I started vacationing in South Carolina’s Low Country in the 1970s.

My sense of comfort with the Low Country was a major reason I decided to set a mystery series—the “Death on Demand” books—on a fictional sea island off the coast of South Carolina. And oh what a wonderful choice that turned out to be. It has given me a fabulous background for a series that now includes thirteen titles. The most recent book—April Fool Dead (Morrow, 2002)—celebrates spring in the Low Country while offering a book-oriented puzzle that I hope readers will enjoy. The 14th title—Engaged To Die—will be published in spring 2003.

The South teems with delightful possibilities for an author: buried treasure, passionate family quarrels, eccentricities that can amuse or terrify, hidden secrets, smuggling, small town rivalries, pride that begets violence, and, of course, all the kinds of troubles humans can devise whether they live in our South or in Southern Mongolia.

Southerners place a premium on gentility. What fun for a mystery author to ponder the pressures of conformity and how tamped down emotions can explode. I explored this theme in Southern Ghost (1992). Underlying the passion is a Southern sense of honor and the desperation that comes from an unyielding social system.

Southern women have long been perceived as steel magnolias. Just such a woman is busy arranging the lives of those in her family until her own life is ended in Design For Murder (1987).

The South—South Carolina especially—is now a destination for retirees. The clash of cultures resulted in murder in Yankee Doodle Dead (1998).

Some of the books focus on the beauty of the Low Country. I love writing about great blue herons and sand crabs scrabbling in a marsh and the rumble of the surf. Every time I work on a book, I feel that I am there. I love Oklahoma, but it is hot and windy and dusty and the red dirt often as dry and bleak a cattle skull half-buried in an arid gully.

That’s when I travel in my mind down gray sea island roads in the shade of towering live oaks, brush aside the dangling tendrils of Spanish moss, pause to watch a deer plunge through the woods, keep an eye out for that great blue heron, and marvel in the silkiness of the air and the moist humidity.

South Carolina here I come…

Carolyn Hart is also the author of six “Henrie O” mysteries; the most recent is Resort To Murder (Morrow, 2001). Her novel A Settling of Accounts is included in this fall’s collection of her work, Secrets and Other Stories of Suspense (Five Star/Gale, 2002).

Keeping It Southern (When You Just Cain’t Say Cain’t)
by Margaret Maron (Willow Spring, North Carolina)

One of the joys (and yes, one of the problems, too) of setting a book in the South is that we still do talk differently. As soon as we open our mouths, anyone with half an ear knows where we’re from, while someone with a musical ear can distinguish a native Virginian from a native Alabaman. In my own North Carolina, accents vary from the twang of our western mountains through the mellow Piedmont, down to the clipped vowels of the coast where semi-isolated islanders still turn most “eye” sounds to “oy” so that “high tide” comes out sounding something like “hoy toyd.”

Here in fictional Colleton County, NC, where I set my Judge Deborah Knott books, country people still pronounce “ire” as “ar” so that “fire” becomes “far” and a “tire iron” becomes a “tar arn.” If you hear a man say that he keeps his “paramour” out in the barn, it might take you a minute to realize he’s talking about his power mower, not his mistress. So how can I convey all this richness without peppering the pages with the apostrophes and weird spellings that always used to slow down my childhood reading pleasure whenever I tackled Joel Chandler Harris’s Br’er Rabbit tales?

I try to use a judicious mixture of grammar, turns of phrase and only a rare, occasional phonetic spelling. Not enough (I hope!) to be annoying, just enough to convey the flavor.

Deborah’s father and most of her eleven older brothers are only semi-literate. They use double negatives, “heared” for heard, “won’t” for wasn’t, “warn’t” for weren’t, “ain’t” interchangeably for isn’t and aren’t, and their subjects don’t always agree with their verbs. Usage will include “Me and him, we won’t planning to go.” Deborah herself will say things like “about” for almost, as in “I about dropped the glass.” Or “I’m fixing to get ready to call him,” “I might could do it if I’m not too busy,” and “Y’all’ve got to quit talking now or I’m going to clear the courtroom.” Her brothers speak of “carrying” someone to town rather than driving them in the truck.

Most of my Southern readers tell me that Deborah talks just like one of their sisters or cousins, which is encouraging; but I do occasionally hear from people who don’t get what I’m trying to do. One woman wrote my long-suffering editor: “It’s clear Margaret Maron doesn’t know grammar, syntax, or punctuation; but you’re an editor. Are you just as ignorant?”

When the letter was passed over to me, I gently explained that the narrator of my books is not me but Deborah Knott, who may have a law degree, but who will still lapse into down-home usages when running her mouth about her latest adventures. (In my waste-not-want-not thrift, I recycled my letter into an article for The Writer magazine entitled “I Is Not Me.”) After all, I told her, I was only following a precedent set down by an earlier writer, who, in the formal preface to his best book, wrote: “In this book a number of dialects are used… The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork, but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.” Then switching into his first-person narrative voice, that same author opened the first chapter with “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”

Had Mark Twain written the whole book as omniscient and highly literate author, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be a forgotten piece of 19th century esoterica. Instead he gave us Huck’s distinctly ungrammatical “I” voice and the book became a living, breathing masterpiece.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s not a shabby role model.

Slow Dollar, the ninth in Margaret Maron’s award-winning Deborah Knott series, was released in August 2002 by Mysterious Press. A second collection of her short stories will be published next year by Crippen and Landru.

Spanish Moss in My Hair
by Patricia Sprinkle (Smyrna, Georgia)

I decided at nine to become a writer. I decided at nineteen I would never be a “southern writer.”

Of course, I am southern. My roots go back two centuries in North and South Carolina. I spent my whole adolescence in North Florida—which is more southern than the rest of the South, because they got pretty much left out of the War Between the States and keep trying to make up for that. After college, I came to Atlanta the way my Yankee classmates headed to New York City. I prefer the Big Peach to the Big Apple.

However, as a junior at Vassar College, I took a course on Southern Literature taught by a Yankee professor. It seemed to me that she liked every southern writer she assigned for the wrong reasons. I didn’t know people who acted like, talked like, or would be caught dead in a book by Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, or Flannery O’Connor. Even if they did, the people I knew wouldn’t laugh at people the way our teacher laughed at characters in those books or admire the things about them she admired. The people I knew were generally pleasant, intelligently devout, passionate about good manners and football, kind to their families and little children. If some of them happened to be a tad peculiar, nobody I knew would be tacky enough to publicly call attention to that fact.

If southern writers depicted their own people just so Yankees could jeer at or laugh about them, then I would never become a southern writer.

When I began my first mystery, Murder at Markham (Silver Dagger, 2001), we were living in Chicago, so I set the book there. As my detective, I chose Sheila Travis, a 38-year-old widow of a diplomat who had spent most of her life in Japan. That would get rid of the southern element. But a funny thing happened right after Sheila discovered her first body. She went home to her apartment and smelled honeysuckle in the front hall. Honeysuckle? In Chicago? In February?

As puzzled as Sheila, I typed her up the stairs and through the front door. She exclaimed, “Aunt Mary, how did you get in here?”

My own question was, “Aunt Mary, who are you and how did you get in my book?”

Aunt Mary was a quintessential southern lady, the composite of many women I loved, admired, was frustrated by and wanted to become just like when I was growing up. She was cultured and cosmopolitan, but southern to the core-fond of iced tea and pecan pie, autocratic but aware that a little honey goes down better than vinegar, and devoted to making sure that a person would never forget her manners, even while detecting a murder.

Aunt Mary was directly responsible for Sheila’s second case, Murder in the Charleston Manner, although she claims she merely sent Sheila to Charleston to look into a series of accidents involving her best friend from childhood boarding school. She never expected murders to keep happening while Sheila was there.

I enjoyed writing the Charleston book more than I did the Chicago book, even if I wasn’t going to be a southern writer. For one thing, it was so much easier. I knew what the people were likely to do and say next. I knew where they bought groceries (at the Piggly Wiggly) and when they would mow their lawns (6:30 a.m.). I knew what they ate. I knew what would make them happy and what would appall them. And I understood the characters, even the bad ones.

About the time I finished the Charleston first draft, our family moved back to Atlanta. I attended a seminar at the University of Georgia on southern writers and learned a new take on southern writing. The panelists maintained that southern writing is different because family, religion, and history are important parts of the story, place is a character, and people who are a tad peculiar are invited into the story to be pitied or loved, not insulted. My spirit resonated with that.

I went home and re-read my first (and as yet unpublished) manuscript with their criteria in mind. To my chagrin, I discovered that my Chicago mystery was a southern story.

Any of us is fortunate to discover in our lifetime who we are and what we know. A writer is doubly fortunate, because writers write best what we know. In accepting my southern roots as the roots of my writing, I began to see a number of things I know. I know the cadences of southern speech, and distinctions between the speech of different states and different classes within a town. I know there are classes in any town; I also know that doesn’t mean anybody is better or worse than anybody else and you’d better treat them all nicely, or your mother will get after you. I know that while southerners chuckle at people who are a tad peculiar, well-mannered people don’t laugh at them. I know the dark and ugly sides to the race issue, for whites and for blacks, but I also know of deep friendships between members of the two races.

I know that green beans taste better cooked with a slice of fatback, and iced tea is supposed to be sweet and laced with lemon. I know you can drink Coca-Cola for breakfast. I know that Good Old Boys can be real sweet men, even if I don’t agree with all their opinions. And I know that the South is changing—and how.

Knowing all that—really knowing it from the inside out—makes it so much easier to create characters and put them into the right places. Four of the Sheila Travis books take place in Atlanta, but each is a story born from the neighborhood in which it occurs. For years I carried around the plot of what eventually became Deadly Secrets on the St. Johns, trying to fit it into an Atlanta neighborhood, too, but that was a Jacksonville story, not an Atlanta one. Once I admitted that, the rest fell into place.

Knowing the South also can make southern signings easier. For instance, nobody needed to explain to me why a local signing for Death of a Dunwoody Matron had to be scheduled at noon—that’s when tennis practice is over. At a signing in Montgomery, Alabama, I got a phone call from my mother-in-law’s first cousin who couldn’t come. I knew that that whole line of readers didn’t mind standing there while Lucy asked about each member of my immediate family.

I found the model for MacLaren Yarbrough, my second amateur sleuth, in a small Georgia town. My sister sent me there to visit her college roommate’s mother, and down here, your sister’s college roommate’s mother is practically kin. We got acquainted in the back of her family’s hardware store, and as we chatted, a police officer interrupted. She excused herself, spoke with him a minute, then signed a paper.

“What just happened?” I asked after he left.

“I’m a magistrate,” she explained. “I was signing a warrant for arrest.”

I knew in that instant that I had found the protagonist for my second series. MacLaren Yarbrough is a magistrate in a small fictitious county in middle Georgia, a largely unappreciated part of the state. Folks visit Atlanta, Augusta, or Jekyll and St. Simons, or they drive through Middle Georgia on their way to Florida, and never know they’ve missed a string of small historic towns full of real people whose lives are impacted by the world outside, but remain wonderfully placid and pleasant at the same time. These are people who devote their free time to fast-pitch softball and car races, who have time to sit down and talk with an author they’ve never met simply because she’s a friend of a friend. They turned out in force to give the real magistrate an 82nd birthday party when we introduced Who Invited the Dead Man? at their local library.

I write that series in the first person not because MacLaren Yarbrough is me, but because I know so intimately how she thinks and talks, what worries her and tickles her. She’s happily married, with two sons who continue to devil her a bit and grandchildren she’s trying to get to know better before they are grown. She’s got a cook/housekeeper who has worked for her so long, sometimes it’s hard to know who works for whom. She is nosy, feckless, certain she can do things better and quicker than most other people, honest to a fault most of the time, good-hearted, and generous to people who don’t deserve it. I enjoy knowing her. Sometimes I think the feeling is mutual. And while at this point she’s a good bit older than I, at the rate I am aging and she isn’t, we’ll be contemporaries before long.

I never intended to write southern mysteries. I wanted to write universal books that would touch people everywhere with goodness, laughter, and the everlasting struggle between good and evil. What I discovered is, those things may be universal, but they always occur in the particular. The best way I can clothe them is in southern clothes worn by southern people in southern towns.

And heck, it’s so much easier to just write what you know.

Patricia Sprinkle is the author of seven Sheila Travis mysteries and four MacLaren Yarbrough mysteries. The Sheila Travis series is currently being reprinted by Silver Dagger: Murder at Markham in January 2002, Murder in the Charleston Manner in January 2003, with the rest to follow. The third MacLaren Yarbrough mystery, Who Invited the Dead Man?, was published by Signet in July 2002. Signet will release Who Left That Body in the Rain? in December 2002 and Sprinkle is currently working on a new book in that series, Who Let That Killer in the House? She lives in the Atlanta area with her husband, and is active in Sisters in Crime and MWA. Her website is

The Mystery Listener: Sounds of the South
by Steven Steinbock (Yarmouth, Maine)

Southern mysteries are very sensual. When we read them, our minds are sipping on mint julep, iced tea, or gin. We smell hushpuppies frying and catfish on the griddle and we take in air filled with pine and magnolia. We feel sweat and the grit of coal mines gather on our skin. But most of all, we hear the sounds. It’s hard to read Sharyn McCrumb’s novels without hearing the strum of a dulcimer. When we read James Lee Burke’s “Robicheaux” books we hear French laments and Zydeco fiddles. Every page of Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die compels us to imagine the funereal marches of a New Orleans brass band.

This auditory sensuality, blended with the South’s proud tradition of storytelling, makes the audiobook a natural medium for experiencing detective fiction and suspense writing set in the South. A skilled audiobook narrator has the added benefit of providing the cadence, the rhythm, the drawl of southern dialects that many of us might miss on the printed page.

Sharyn McCrumb writes her books “like Appalachian quilts.” The author of several mystery series, she has received the highest praise for her “Appalachian Ballad” series, novels that contain suspenseful storylines as well as rich portraits of life in rural Tennessee. Sally Darling has narrated most of the books in this series for Recorded Books.® Darling brings an honest understanding of Tennessee life to the recording through her use of accent and timing. In the case of If I Ever Return, Pretty Peggy-O, she even provides melodies to the songs of the fictional folk-singer of the title. Recorded Books published The Ballad of Frankie Silver (#5 in the Ballad series) with dual narrators Jeff Woodman and Barbara Rosenblat, who has also read McCrumb’s Elizabeth McPherson series for the publisher.

Kate Reading (an appropriate surname) can be heard on the unabridged recordings of many of Carolyn G. Hart’s novels published by Books on Tape.® Both of her series—novels featuring journalist-sleuth “Henrie O” and the “Death on Demand” books featuring South Carolina mystery book shop owner Annie Darling—are filled with Southern flavor that Ms. Reading meets with smooth precision and embellishes with subtly varied accents and speaking styles. Check your library for recordings of The Christie Caper or Dead Man’s Island.

Technically speaking, Patricia Cornwell’s Virginia-based medical examiner Kay Scarpetta is a Southerner. While Richmond, Virginia, looms so close to the Mason-Dixon line that it’s hard to think of it as part of the South, if we listen carefully, we can still catch a bit of the Southern Charm in her morgues and crime scenes. Cornwell’s books have been excellently adapted for audio by Random House and read beautifully by Blair Brown, Lindsay Kraus, and others. Those who prefer their medical thrillers unabridged (so they can catch every grisly word) will not want to miss Kate Reading’s readings of the Scarpetta series published by Books On Tape as well as by C.J. Critt for Harper Audio.

While best known for the Scarpetta novels, Cornwell has written a series of off-beat police procedurals set in Charlotte, North Carolina—Southern Cross, Hornet’s Nest, and Isle of Dogs. These books have generally not been received as well as the Scarpetta series, and audiobook adaptations have had mixed reviews. Listeners may want to skip the unabridged versions and try Putnam-Berkley Audio’s six-hour abridgement (on four cassettes or five CDs) of Isle of Dogs, which takes series characters Andy Brazil and Judy Hammer to an island off the Georgia coast. Actress Becky Ann Baker manages to convey the characters with Southern grit, charm, and comedic slime.

In addition to reading several of Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels, C.J. Critt has performed a myriad of mysteries for Recorded Books, including several with a distinctly Southern flavor. She has read two of Joan Hess’ Arkansas-based Arly Hanks novels, Misery Loves Maggody and

Critt is also responsible for reading Margaret Maron’s novels for Recorded Books. Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series, which has garnered Agatha, Anthony, Edgar, and Macavity awards, are all available as unabridged audiobooks, and beginning with Bootlegger’s Daughter, Critt brings a lively energy into the North Carolina backwoods, giving an audible voice to the witty humor of Judge Knott and her creator.

The mysteries of Thomas H. Cook, with their historical atmosphere, profound characterizations, and brilliant plotting, make for wonderful listening, especially when read by George Guidall. But for a Cook novel with a particularly Southern feel, try Peter Whitman’s 1994 recording of Evidence of Blood. The British actor, who also read Cook’s earlier Flesh and Blood, performs the novel beautifully, giving flesh (and blood) to the residents of Sequoyah, Georgia.

As hinted earlier, I’m a big fan of James Lee Burke’s writing, whether on the printed page or on audio media. Any recording of his novels provides me with profound Southern pleasure. Listeners who want their audiobooks complete and unabridged will do well with Mark Hammer’s smoothly paced readings for Recorded Books. Hammer, who has also read Stuart Woods’ epic, Chiefs, has a mature, knowing, sometimes tired and cloudy style that reflects Burke’s age-spanning tone.

Despite my own preference for unabridged readings, I find Will Patton’s performances of the abridgements (for Simon and Schuster Audio) to be better than the best Gumbo. This South Carolina native brings the Bayou alive with his genius timing and intonation. His manner is spicy, sexy, and well paced, providing the real McCoy, whether speaking in the Cajun dialect of Dave Robicheaux, or the Texas drawl of Billy Bob Holland. The edge Patton brings to the writing is lovingly and violently crisp in a way no other reader can match. Simon and Schuster simultaneously released Burke’s recent Jolie Blon’s Bounce in hardcover, abridged (read by Patton), and unabridged (read by Hammer) audiobooks. Both audio versions contain introductions by the author, and the unabridged version weaves in the original 1946 Cajun classic, “Jolie Blonde,” sung by Harry Choates to a haunting effect. For Southern sensuality, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Steven Steinbock is an avid mystery reader and collector who listens to books while driving his kids to and from school. He is a Contributing Editor for AudioFile magazine ( and the author of three books about Judaism.

Buy this back issue! Available in hardcopy or as a downloadable PDF.