Mystery in the American South I

Volume 34, No. 4, Winter 2018-19

Mystery in the American South

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


  • It Was the Third of June, Another Sleepy, Dusty, Delta Day… by Margot Kinberg


  • Making Peace with the “Southern Writer” Label by Donna Andrews
  • My Summer of the Suspected Spy by Mignon Ballard
  • I Wasn’t Born in the South but I Got Here as Soon as I Could: How I Became a Damned Yankee by Nancy Bartholomew
  • The Rebel Bishop by Paul A. Barra
  • Confessions of a Carpetbagger by Ellen Byron
  • You Can Take the Boy Out of West Virginia, But… by John Billheimer
  • A Southern Life-Style and Tax Write-Off by Don Bruns
  • My Heroines Will Always Be Southern by Ana Brazil
  • Serving Up a Southern Mystery by Elizabeth S. Craig
  • A Yankee in Virginia by Ellen Crosby
  • A Casserole in the Freezer by Krista Davis
  • What Does It Take to Be a “Southern” Writer? by D.J. Donaldson
  • Over the River and Through the Woods by J.T. Ellison
  • A Face Like a Beige Rock by Mary Anna Evans
  • Southern as Three Rows of Okra by Bill Fitzhugh
  • Georgia on My Mind by Judy Fitzwater
  • Hidden in Backwoods Appalachia by Susan Furlong
  • The Strength and Humor of Steel Magnolias by Barb Goffman
  • On a Sunny Sea Island by Carolyn Hart
  • A Poke Full of Death by Russell Hill
  • Murder in Texas—Southern or Sui Generis? by Kay Kendall
  • Haunted by Molly MacRae
  • Con Artists Make Their Mark Down South by Lynda McDaniel
  • Don’t Write What You Know by John McMahon
  • The Changing South by Sandra Parshall
  • Endless Stories by J.M. Redmann
  • Serendipity Rides the Back Roads by Sarah Shankman
  • Jersey by Birth—Southern at Heart by Jessica Speart
  • Moving South: Heroic Women, Over-Protective Men, and a Mess of Murders by Maureen Tan
  • “Look Away, Look Away” by Art Taylor
  • The R Word by Tina Whittle
  • The Original Music City Mystery Series Returns by Steven Womack


  • Murder in Retrospect: Reviews by Sandie Herron, Ali Karim, L.J. Roberts, and Lesa Holstine
  • Real Crime Southern Style by Cathy Pickens
  • From the Editor’s Desk by Janet A. Rudolph

Making Peace with the “Southern Writer” Label
by Donna Andrews

Shortly after the release of Murder with Peacocks, my first Meg Langslow book, a friend let me know that she’d convinced her book group to read it. It was a fairly erudite book group, composed largely of professional women in a southern university town, so I was pleased to learn that they’d enjoyed Peacocks. But one funny thing happened. When they’d first begun discussing the book, some of the women—the northerners, mostly—thought it was more than a little over the top. Specifically, some of the details of the weddings—the peacocks strolling on the lawn, the velvet Renaissance bridesmaid dresses for an outdoor wedding in August—struck them as unrealistic and unbelievable. Until the southern women began relating wild tales of weddings they’d attended—including, in some cases their own. Suddenly the northerners realized I wasn’t making up implausible tales—it was all reportage.

Curiously, before hearing about this book group meeting, it hadn’t dawned on me that I was a southern writer.

I think if I’d come to this realization when I was in my teens or twenties, I’d have rebelled furiously against it. Of course, at that age most of us spend a great deal of energy finding things we can rebel furiously against. Many of the things I found seemed distinctly southern.

The accent, for example. I remember feeling relieved that thanks to having a father from Kansas and watching way too much television as a child I didn’t have much of southern accent. Not even the fairly subtle Tidewater accent that’s common in my part of Virginia. Way too many people still assume anyone with a drawl isn’t very smart—I didn’t want to get stereotyped with that. Wouldn’t be caught dead saying y’all.

And the whole Civil War obsession. Granted, growing up in York County, I didn’t have to bear the full brunt of that. Nothing much happened in York County during the Civil War—at least compared with the Revolutionary War, where we played a very important part—so we tended to look down our noses at all that Johnny-come-lately Confederate stuff. But still, growing up I knew people who I now suspect weren’t being the least bit ironic when they used the term “The War of Northern Aggression.” (Mom, on the other hand, was most definitely ironic in her preference for “The Late Unpleasantness.”)

And I was taken aback recently by the realization that when I started first grade the York County school system was still completely segregated. In the mid-1950s the county actually built two nearly identical schools two miles apart on opposite sides of Route 17—York High and James Weldon Johnson School. When integration arrived, the latter became Yorktown Intermediate School, which seems rather a shame—what’s not to like about having a school named after a poet, novelist, attorney, leading light of the Harlem Renaissance and early leader of the NAACP, a man who served as US Consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua and was the first African-American professor at NYU? Then again—1967? Okay, I get why they changed the name back then. Maybe it wouldn’t even go over well now, but I hope someday they can bring it back.

The south has changed. Not as much as I’d like, but we’re working on that. And I’ve changed. We get along better these days.

Of course, one reason we get along is that some aspects of the south offer such scope for humor and homicide in my books. I’ve had plots that revolve around Civil War history gone amok and good ol’ boy corruption. Competitive gardening, small town gossip, and ladies who can wield “bless her heart” as a lethal weapon have all played a role in my books.

But so have what I see as the best things about the south: the love of place, of history, and of community. In my fictional Virginia town of Caerphilly, it may take the locals a decade or three to forget that you’re “not from around here,” but that doesn’t mean they won’t go all out to help you in a crisis. Everybody knows not only your name, but the names of all four of your grandparents and what side your people fought on in the Civil War, and who you took to the senior prom and how many bottles of wine you bought last week at the Caerphilly Market. Which can be a little disconcerting if you value your privacy, but those same busybodies also know for a fact that you couldn’t possibly be guilty of anything as wicked as a murder, and with any luck one of them will have been peeping through her Venetian blinds at just the right moment to give you an alibi. I confess, I sometimes shy away from killing off someone local—I just don’t want to do that to the community. Much better to knock off someone from someplace else—preferably someone who’s up to no good, like that developer who thinks the local landscape would be improved by the addition of a few acres of cheap condos, or the drug dealer who is under the mistaken impression that he can put one over on the local cops.

Not that the south has a monopoly on either warm-hearted community or charming eccentricity—but both fit remarkably well in a southern setting. So I’ve finally embraced my identity as a southern writer. I’ve even let the highly useful “y’all” creep back into my vocabulary.

Donna Andrews was born in Yorktown, Virginia, went to the University of Virginia, and now lives in Reston, Virginia. (There was that one year she lived in DC, but we’ll gloss over that.) Her Meg Langslow series is set mainly in the small, fictitious Virginia town of Caerphilly. The most recent books in the series are Toucan Keep a Secret (August 2018) and Lark! the Herald Angels Sing (October 2018).

Over the River and Through the Woods
by J.T. Ellison

I have never lived above the Mason-Dixon, but I don’t know that people would consider me a southerner. I was born in Florida, raised in Colorado, and moved to Washington, DC—McLean, Virginia—when I was a sophomore in high school—possibly the worst time for a parent to move their child to a completely dislocated environment.

But I say y’all without hesitation or thought, and when I have a glass of wine, there’s definitely a drawl. Fifteen years in Virginia and 20 in Tennessee, 25 years of that married to a Nashville native, should qualify me, but I always feel like I’m on the outside looking in.

My southern friends fascinate me. They are not the south I know; they are the south I try to emulate. Their slow voices, the rounded vowels and gracious head tilts, their innate ability to decorate, dress, cook, entertain, and make it all look effortless—it’s a wonder. They project light, but I know there is more going on behind their closed doors.

Because the way they write… you can see it in the stories they tell, and the way they tell them. There’s a powerful lushness to the vocabulary. The prose is unhurried, the darkness welcome. They’re perfectly content to let a story unfold; whether it’s happy or grim, you’ll get there when they’re ready. Just like dinner.

That’s probably why I love writing novels set in the south, the more gothic, the better. I’m trying to understand the land in which I live. It’s not just the language—yes, the south has an idiomatic phraseology all its own, as do most areas of the country. (Trust me, it’s fun with copyeditors.) But it’s more about the tension the setting creates. Everything feels more sinister with Spanish moss dripping from the trees.

When I was little, we’d drive from Colorado to Florida to visit both sets of grandparents. Three days in the backseat of a station wagon wedged between my two older brothers wasn’t exactly my favorite thing, but there was something I dreaded even more—the eerie road into my GranMary’s house.

I come from the land of the conifer, majestic trees set against a blue sky so wide and open you can see for miles. It’s where I can breathe freely. Most of the drive was open, too, through the plains of Texas into Louisiana—but we always went through the bayous at night, when I was asleep.

I was always so excited to make that first stop in Florida, the welcome center, with their freshly squeezed orange juice. And the beach was wonderful—again, there was a discernible horizon.

And then, when our two weeks was up, we’d bundle into the wally wagon and drive northwest to Gainesville. The flat, winding, two-lane roads meandered through horse country, dark fences bordering green pastures. But the closer we got to Gainesville, the darker the road became. The trees grew closer together, and the wet seeped into the car through the vents, negating any attempts at air conditioning, so the windows would be rolled down, the hot, muggy air allowed to crawl inside.

Mold grew black on the trunks of the trees, and the canopy of oaks was intimidatingly huge. These deciduous monsters with their spider-webbed moss hulked over the land, blocking out any kind of view, keeping the houses and farms insular, separate, hidden.

GranMary’s home was on a renovated commune; it smelled of must and everything always felt damp, from the napkins to the sofa. I was terrified of spiders, and there were always one or two massive banana spiders crouching in the greenery around the front door, ready to spring at me. Most of the food was from the garden; I was allowed to use my great-grandmother’s ravioli cutter (she brought this with her from Italy, don’t hold it so tightly) to help make dinner.

From the moment we turned into the lane, I felt so uneasy not being able to see what was coming. Those close trees were threatening, and scary, and even as we were reunited with beloved cousins and swimming in the pool, I couldn’t help looking over my shoulder to the edge of the encroaching forest. It seemed that time stood still. The trees were waiting. Watching, and waiting.

From the beginning, I had an immediate distrust of the place. It was so very different than anything I’d ever experienced, and for a child with an overactive imagination, it wasn’t a leap to think ax murderers were living just beyond the border of the property, waiting to come slaughter us in our sleep. (For the record: I wasn’t exactly wrong in that fear. Bundy ravaged the Chi Omega house in Tallahassee in 1978; in 1989, his body was cremated in Gainesville. Bundy ashes in the freaking trees, people. And in 1990, Danny Rolling raped, murdered, desecrated, and decapitated his way through town, leaving eight victims in his wake. But he wasn’t caught for weeks; another man, with ties to my family, was the first suspect.)

These annual visits were both a fear and a delight. I loved seeing my father’s family, but I also felt undone the whole time I was there. My grandmother was a writer for the local paper, my step-grandfather a journalism professor, so it was a literary house. (This was the grandmother who submitted my third-grade county paper award-winning poem on slavery to True Confessions magazine, earning me my first rejection letter at the tender age of 10.) The pressure of living up to her expectations drowned me as much as the overarching trees. The hugs goodbye were always tearful, but the sense of relief driving away was palpable.

It is this atmosphere I dredge up when I want to write a story set in the south. Expectations, dread, claustrophobia mingled with pride and desire. Isolation leading to madness, then to murder. It explains many of my early titles, the plots lurid and vicious. It was my mind trying to reconcile these summer visits to a place that scared me so much I used to get physically sick. (I was almost always ill at GranMary’s, my stomach in knots from the moment we loaded the car until the final honks drifted into the trees as we drove away.)

I have to be grateful for the experience, and trust me, I would give anything to have another visit with my grandmother. She’s marked me indelibly, though. I get my gothic honestly.

Next best thing, I guess.

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author J.T. Ellison writes standalone domestic noir and psychological thriller series. She is also the Emmy Award-winning cohost of the literary television series “A Word on Words.” Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens. For more, visit her at or @thrillerchick.

On a Sunny Sea Island
by Carolyn Hart

A gentle breeze rustles the palmettos, stirs delicate Spanish moss hanging in live oak trees. A watchful alligator basks on the lagoon bank. Barefoot beach goers hop on hot sand all the way to the jade green water. Pelicans dive for succulent fish.

Hilton Head Island.

In 1978, when we first visited on a family vacation, the island was sleepy, its bridge to the mainland in place only a few years. We were enchanted and came every summer and sometimes in fall and spring. The pace was slow, the living easy. Now two million visitors a year enjoy the foot-shaped island, heel and ankle to the north, toe to the south. Hilton Head shares with visitors its Deep South heritage of innate courtesy and an appreciation of life lived with charm.

Hilton Head not only captivated us, affording glorious holidays, but my knowledge about the island turned out to be a charm for my life. In the mid-eighties I hit a rough patch as a writer. Publishers weren’t interested in traditional mysteries written by American women. That was the preserve of dead English ladies. The American market wanted romance novels. I thought, how hard can this be? Instead of who killed John Doe, will the heroine get her guy in the last chapter? I wrote some “romances.” A romance editor said I needed to increase the sexual tension. I asked a friend, a very successful romance author, for advice. She answered kindly, but emphatically, “Carolyn, why don’t you write mysteries?”

I took her advice. I decided I wouldn’t worry about what the markets wanted. I would write what I loved to write. I wrote thinking that no publisher is going to buy this book, so I’ll have fun, write the kind of book I love to read. I’ll set the book in a mystery bookstore, talk about wonderful mysteries old and new, everything from Mary Roberts Rinehart to Leslie Ford to Nancy Pickard. Since no publisher was going to buy it, I would have a young couple fall in love. No angst, no quarrels, no despair. You see, I may not believe in romance, but I do believe in love, the kind of love that makes life worth living, the connection between a man and woman that enjoys sex and respect and caring and giving and trusting. I thought about my heroine, a young woman from a middle-class background. What happens when she is pursued by a very wealthy fellow who lives to play? The young couple? Annie Laurance and Max Darling.

Setting? I chose Carmel, California, surely a brooding fog-swirled natural for a mystery bookstore. Just as I started writing, a new book came out, a story set in a bookstore on Carmel. It was as if a big Do Not Enter sign blocked the way.

I wanted the bookstore to be in a resort, the kind of place people want to go, are blessed to have the opportunity to visit. The only other vacation area I knew well was Hilton Head, South Carolina.

I didn’t want to deal with actual streets and stores and cafés, so I created a fictional sea island, Broward’s Rock, South Carolina. I loved writing Death on Demand. I luxuriated in being on a sea island, my very own sea island.

And here’s where serendipity played its role. The first editor to whom the book was sent, wonderful Kate Miciak at Bantam, was looking for books by American women mystery authors because of the huge success of Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. These three writers, though they wrote harder-edged detective fiction, turned mystery publishing upside down and opened the door for American women mystery writers.

Death on Demand was the second book Kate bought for a brand-new paperback series at Bantam. When we first talked, I learned that she loved Hilton Head. Kate beautifully published nine titles in the series. Walking on My Grave, the final book, is the 26th in the series. I loved every moment and I will always be happy that Annie and Max love their sea island. I can see them now, walking hand in hand on the winter beach…

Carolyn Hart is the author of 62 novels of mystery and suspense. She is a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master. Among her favorite titles are Death on Demand, Escape from Paris, Brave Hearts, Letter from Home, Dead Man’s Island, and Ghost at Work.

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