Murder and Mahem in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — Interview by Art Taylor
The burning of three black churches in North Carolina heightens the dramatic tension of Margaret Maron’s latest Deborah Knott mystery, Home Fires (Mysterious Press, $22). But while arson stands out as the mystery to be solved, Maron’s exploration of the greater mysteries of Southern race relations just as surely undergirds the structure of the book.
Three local teens–including Deborah’s nephew, A.K.–are convicted of desecrating a cemetery; later that night the first church burns and suspicions fall upon the three youths. Adding to the plot’s intricacy and to the rich texture of its themes are Cyl DeGraffenried, an aggressive young African- American ADA who seems especially tough on the black teens she prosecutes; a 1970s black activist named Wallace Adderly who has provoked Degraffenried’s ire; and a trio of preachers who’ve seen their churches go up into flames.
Home Fires has been named one of the eight best mysteries of the year by Publishers Weekly and stands a good chance of adding more awards to Maron’s previous honors for Bootlegger’s Daughter (which swept the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony and Macavity Awards in 1993) and Up Jumps the Devil (1996 Agatha Award winner). On the eve of Home Fires’ publication, Maron spoke to MysteryNet about both the book and the racial climate it depicts.
MysteryNet: What prompted you to write this book?
Maron: I didn’t feel I could keep writing about the South and NOT write about race. Secondly, there’s been an ongoing dialogue on the national level about race–and also in our state with the 100th anniversary of the burning of a black newspaper’s office down in Wilmington, N.C.–and I wanted to be a part of it. Lastly, Cyl DeGraffenried, the young black ADA, has been a puzzle to me from the beginning. I wanted to know her story.
MysteryNet: Do you find it difficult as a white author to understand and represent black characters?
Maron: I keep going back to Walt Whitman, who said: “I am large. I contain multitudes.” Imagining yourself into a different consciousness is the very essence of being a writer. I try to present different viewpoints and let the characters speak for themselves.
I have spoken with black friends, and I’ve read a lot of current black literature to try to come to grips with it: Henry Louis Gates Jr; Growing Up Black: From Slave Days to the Present, edited by Jay David; Lorraine Hansbury’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black; Aliona L. Gibson’s Nappy: Growing Up Black and Female in America; maybe a half-dozen others.
MysteryNet: Have any black churches actually been burned in Eastern North Carolina?
Maron: At the time that I started writing, there was one either out in the Western part of the state or in a surrounding state. National Public Radio’s Morning Edition had a long segment on a southern town where a black church had been burned. At first, everybody voiced all the politically correct things. But by the time they got down to the good ol’ boys in the overalls at the service stations, it’s like, “Well, hell, I don’t know but what they set the fire themselves–because they wanted the insurance money, or they wanted everybody to feel sorry for them and they got money from all over the country.” And I thought, “I can’t believe they’re saying this in this day and age.” But that’s a point of view; whether it’s one I approve of or believe is right, there it is, and for better or worse, I included it.
MysteryNet: Children play an interesting role in the book–not only in the possibility that young adults are setting the fires but also in the scene when Deborah watches black children, white children and “even a couple of kids of Asian descent” playing together and asks “Surely it was going to be different for them?” Regarding race relations, do you believe things are better or worse for kids today than 10 years ago or 30 years ago?
Maron: I know it’s different; I hope it’s better. I do think that there’s more ease between the races. Nevertheless, residual racism is always with us. Even when it’s not bad, in the sense of looking down on one another, there’s always that consciousness of different skin color.I wanted to show how “nice” people–people who think that they’re not biased–still have lingering traces. And I also wanted to remind my readers, most of whom are probably white, that it’s not a one-way thing, that integration brought some losses to the black community, too.
MysteryNet: Are you trying to reflect the current status of race relations in the South or potentially to change what you see? Can fiction effect change?
Maron: I certainly hope that I’m a positive force. But I’m not on a soapbox. I try to portray what’s here and hope it will make people think. You start down a slippery slope when you start trying to preach too much, but certainly good fiction always has something else going on. I am no Mark Twain, but look how much Mark Twain managed to say in Huckleberry Finn about race relations without preaching.
MysteryNet: Over the course of the Deborah Knott series, it often seems that the murder mystery isn’t a central element of the books. You spend more time exploring Deborah’s life and family and the situations of other characters than you do on any conventional sleuthing. Is this a conscious decision?
Maron: No. It’s just the way it seems to come out. I know that some people wish I would concentrate more on the classic murder mystery and forget about all the other ramifications, but I just can’t seem to do it. Killer Market is probably in this series my “purest” murder mystery because it had no big social side issues; yet people liked that book the least. I got all kind of grumbles face-to-face and in the mail about “Well this is all very well, but send her back to Colleton County. Show us her father, show us her brothers.” You write the book you write, and I’m trying to please myself and my readers, and sometimes I’m really caught in the middle.
Part of this is that with an amateur sleuth–and Deborah is an amateur, being a judge–I must dream up logical reasons to get her involved. We know very well that a district court judge does not run around solving murder mysteries, and that’s part of the artificiality of the genre. Given that, I try to focus on reality in the other ways. I find that it’s easier if she has a personal involvement or has been specifically asked–which is what happened in Bootlegger’s Daughter but she was an attorney then and could legitimately be asked. As a judge, she’s sometimes on pretty shaky ethical ground.
MysteryNet: What’s next for Judge Knott?
Maron: The next book is a follow-up with Cyl Degraffenried’s story. There don’t seem to be any burning issues in this upcoming book. There are ongoing race problems, but it’s not as intense as in Home Fires. I wanted to finish Cyl’s story, and that’s where this one is going.
Buy Margaret Maron Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com
Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott Mysteries
- Bootlegger's Daughter, 1992 (Winner of Edgar, Anthony, Agatha & Macavity Awards)
- Southern Discomfort, 1993
- Shooting at Loons, 1994
- Up Jumps the Devil, 1994
- Killer Market, 1997
- Home Fires, 1998
Art Taylor is the managing editor of Spectator Magazine, an arts and entertainment newsweekly in the Triangle area of North Carolina. His mystery fiction and mystery-related nonfiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, The Armchair Detective and the North Carolina Literary Review.