Author: Carolyn Haines
Genre: Mystery/Romantic Suspense
Marlena, from a prominent member of the community and wife to the richest man in the county Lucas Bramlett, is found barely alive and mutilated while her daughter, Suzanna, is still missing from the attack. Marlena's illegitimate, biracial, half sister Jade Dupree desperately wants to find Suzanna. Although Jade is biracial she knows that she shares a mother, Lucille, with Marlena, having been raised by the black couple who takes care of the estate. The story becomes more complicated when Frank Kimble, a police officer who has dedicated himself to the case, finds himself falling in love with Jade. SPOILER: After much investigation, Frank and Jade discover that Lucille hired Marlena's lover and a couple of townies to "scare" Marlena into being faithful to her husband Lucas. When the scaring turns into the accidental murder of Suzanna, the attackers decided to torture Marlena for fun. However, after Frank entices the murders to confess he kills them leaving Marlena at the hands of her husband and mother. Her husband decides to press negligence charges against Marlena for the wrongful death of Suzanna. The novel ends with Frank vowing to find the evidence that will put Lucille in prison. Dispite mutual love, Jade realizes that she must flee with her sister. Jade and Marlena plan to run away to avoid prosecution.
Geographical Setting: Drexel, Mississippi in Jebediah County
Time Period: 1950s
This is a well written character driven Southern mystery. However, this is not your typical mystery plot. Although the story does begin with the crime and end in the solution, the novel is not driven only by the need to solve the mystery; there is also emotional attachment to the characters as well as intrigue. The mood is dark and sometimes creepy and includes several ghost stories while the characters delve into the foreboding and ominous parts of their pasts. The characters' histories are revealed with extensive detail. The storyline does not always move forward, but instead weaves back and forth filling in details as the reader reaches out to the author to inquire. The narrator is in omniscient third person, but tells the story from different points of view to create one cohesive story. It is an excellent, provoking, and fascinating read.
Read-alikes: Of course, if you liked this book you might want to look into the other works that she has written. Haines writes the Mississippi Delta Series which are mysteries that are set in the South. Penumbra is a bit of a departure from her other novels in that it is less supernatural and more character driven. If you liked the intrigue of the Southern setting and the violent and sometimes perverse characters you might want to check out William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Falkner sets all his books in the fictitious Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi where he examines among other things the racial boundaries in the South. In this cynical and dark novel a southern-belle is kidnapped and raped. Another excellently written book which delves into these themes of violence and race in the South is the gorgeously written book Paradise by Toni Morrison. Morrison explores the racial strictures, and bias in the community when juxtaposed with the “Convent,” a group of harmless yet social miscreants. Both of these books are not mysteries in the traditional sense but are driven by the reader’s curiosity into the events described. If you liked the rural setting and variety of characters then you might like O’Artful Death by Sarah Stewart Taylor. The first book in the Sweeney St. George Mysteries describes the protagonist, Sweeny when she visits Vermont where an interesting grave marker catches her attention and puts her in the path of a present-day murder. It invokes gorgeous descriptions of the rural setting and includes intense characterizations with elegant prose to relate her story of intrigue and suspense. If you liked the historical setting, woman at odds with the world theme, and the dark tone you might like Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. This novel is a character driven, historical mystery set in the 12th century in which a woman physician, feels compelled to find the identity of the true murder of 4 children. Its dark tone includes rich detail of the time period and includes several subplots. If you liked the mystic element you might like Hummingbird Wizard by Meredith Belvins. This is the first book in the Mystic Café Series, an Anne Sazabo mystery. Anne is forced into solving a mystery when her best-friend dies unexpectedly. Annie has to align herself with her ex-mother-in-law who is a gypsy matriarch. This is a fast-paced humorous mystery which relies on the strong characters Blevins develops.
Red Flags: Racial Derogatory Language, Bad Language, Descriptive sexual violence, Sexual Content, Violence