What is the best book I could read to learn about North Carolina?
I get this question all the time from people who know about my interest in books about our state and those written by our great writers.
My answer differs, depending on what kind of books my questioner likes to read.
For instance, if the questioner likes murder mysteries, I will tell them to read one of the 17 books in Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott series. Knott is a smart country woman lawyer who is now a state district court judge in rural Colleton County east of Raleigh. Colleton is a fictional county that might be Johnston, or, more likely, Harnett, in the area where Maron grew up and, after a few years in New York, has been settled for many years.
Whatever the name or whichever the real county is Knott’s home, it is home to typical and real North Carolina small-town and rural life. Deborah Knott is smart and good, but not perfect. She comes from a large farm family led by her father Kezzie Knott and populated by 12 children from Kezzie’s two marriages, plus spouses and numerous grandchildren.
Kezzie has not always been a simple farmer. For instance, his other activities were the basis for the title of the first book in the series published in 1992, “Bootlegger’s Daughter.”
Having a former bootlegger as Judge Knott’s daddy and a few other mischievous kinfolk whose lives some time intersect with the law add a special spice to Maron’s stories.
Knott‘s many friends and work colleagues also enrich Maron’s books. Everybody in Colleton County seems to know everybody else. Rich and poor; black, white and Hispanic; farmers and townspeople; old and young; good and bad. We meet them dealing with problems of the environment, migrant worker issues, hurricane damage, political shenanigans, real estate development, and other challenges in addition to the murder mysteries that move every book along.
Every now and then, Maron moves the action to other North Carolina scenes. The furniture market. The Seagrove pottery community. Or the mountains and the coast. Along the way, Maron’s readers get a good look at our state and its people.
Maron brings back many of the same characters in book after book. She makes them so real and compelling that some fans say they read the books just to keep up with Deborah’s family. Most important in recent books has been a deputy sheriff named Dwight Bryant. First he was one of many characters. He worked his way up to boyfriend, then fiancée, and now new husband. Maron stretched out that courtship over several books, reminding this reader of the courtship of Father Tim and Cynthia in the Mitford series of books written by another popular North Carolina author, Jan Karon.
In her latest book, “Three Day Town,” Deborah and Dwight are on their way to New York City for a long-delayed honeymoon. On the way out of town, Deborah cannot keep her mind from her work, thinking about what confronts her when she gets back, a custody battle involving two casual friends. Judge Knott did not want to handle the case, but all the other judges had even closer connections, and “they both want me and they both swore they would abide by whatever ruling I made without bitching about it afterwards.”
Knott knows the two so well that she is already wrestling with which one would be the better parent, even before she has heard the first argument in her court.
But Maron and Judge Knott leave this problem behind and find a more serious one in a friend’s New York apartment. There, before you know it, the building superintendent has been murdered, a whole covey of likely suspects present themselves, and the reader is surrounded by intriguing puzzles that only a talent like Margaret Maron can devise for the pleasure of her readers.