Top Ten Southern Mysteries by Lisa Turner
It takes soul and skill for an author to create a great mystery while portraying Southern dialogue, setting, and culture. There appears to be something in Southern soil that nurtures such writers because we have an abundance of them. Here are ten of my favorite mysteries listed in no particular order. I could add a dozen more. I love them all. Well, maybe the first author is my favorite.
In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead by James Lee Burke Burke’s rich and evocative prose spurred me to begin writing mysteries. His Detective Dave Robicheaux has the heart of a poet, the mind of a philosopher, and the explosive energy of a man who’s certain he can vanquish the gathering forces of evil. Electric Mist reveals Burke’s mystical side. Robicheaux deals with the Mob and solves multiple murders while engaging in a running conversation with the ghost of a Confederate general who still walks in the shadows of the Civil War.
Paris Trout by Peter Dexter The book is set in a small town in Georgia after WW II. Brutal racism and domestic violence are acceptable there. A sociopathic businessman believes he can get away with just about anything, including murder. Dexter’s spare prose and unblinking grasp of the dark side of human nature compel the reader to not look away as the story drives toward its violent end. Dexter was awarded the National Book Award for Paris Trout.
A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash Reading Cash’s debut novel is like watching a car slide backward down a hill and crash through a plate glass storefront. Nothing to be done about it. The damage is inevitable. Using the points of view of an elderly woman, a child, and a weary sheriff, Cash tells his story of sexual betrayal and extreme beliefs in the world of religious fundamentalism. Their authentic voices will carry you back home to the Appalachian hollers.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin In this solid police procedural, Tom Franklin captures the Delta landscape and faithfully presents the complexity of race relations in the South. Constable Silas Jones solves a decades-old disappearance of a teenager and rights a tragic wrong done by him to his old friend Larry Ott, the town outcast. If you’re wondering about the title, it’s how many Southern children are taught to spell Mississippi: M-I-crooked letter, crooked letter-I. Crooked letter, crooked letter-I. Hump back, hump back-I.
The Bootlegger’s Daughter by Margaret Maron With a knowing eye for family relations and a keen ear for North Carolina dialect, this series debut swept the 1992 Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity awards. Attorney Deborah Knott, daughter of a notorious North Carolina bootlegger, is campaigning for a local judgeship when she’s called upon to investigate the cold case of a murdered young mother. Maron excels in creating characters readers love and settings they identify with. This long-running series ended in 2015 with Long Upon The Land.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt John Berendt once told an interviewer, “I like crazy people. I encourage them, they make good copy” Since Berendt wanted to write about a nest of eccentrics, Savannah, Georgia, was the natural setting. His fiction/nonfiction mashup astutely depicts Georgia’s faded and filigreed coastal culture. Murder, money, interior decorating, and debauchery with a dollop of Santeria magic form a perfect Low Country stew.
Cop Town by Karin Slaughter It’s 1970 in Atlanta. A cop has been shot in a downtown alley. His partner survives only because the killer’s gun jammed, but he can’t identify the assailant. Two female cops are out on the street—one the sister of the surviving cop—searching for the killer. The solution is something neither one will want to know. Karin Slaughter deftly portrays discriminatory treatment of women in law enforcement and 1970s everyday life in this Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel.
Fay by Larry Brown In this noir coming-of-age story set in Mississippi, a teenage girl escapes a horrific home life only to discover there is little mercy on the road. Along the way, Fay’s innocence and beauty spin a web around men that results in a bad ending for everyone. In straightforward prose, Brown reveals his deep understanding of people who find a way to make it in the impoverished and unforgiving rural South.
The Last Child by John Hart John Hart’s Southern characters and settings ring true, but it’s his gift for pushing his heroes past all limits that most impresses me. This North Carolina story opens with a young boy battling an eagle perched at the top of a tree in order to steal a feather. He’s willing to risk it all to make a totem he believes will help him find his lost sister. The boy’s quest to solve the mystery is as relentless as Hart’s storytelling talent. The book reaches a mystical climax reminiscent of Stephen King’s The Green Mile. Hart won the Edgar Award for Best Novel for The Last Child, the only author evert o have been honored for two consecutive novels.
Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
This is the first of a powerful trilogy that has its roots in the homicidal brutality of the 1960s Deep South. Attorney Penn Cage must face the dilemma of saving his father from a murder charge that his father is unwilling to fight. Penn’s search for the truth unearths long-buried corruption, multiple murders, and a renegade offshoot of the KKK that puts him and his family in danger. In the end, Penn must choose between personal honor and the duty he feels toward the man who raised him. Second in the series is the acclaimed The Bone Tree (2015).
Author Bio: Fascinated by good people who do wicked things, Southern mystery author Lisa Turner examines human nature against the rich backdrop of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. Turner’s mysteries coil the roots of Southern identity around her characters and then drag them into a world of the blues, murder, and heartbreak. Currently, Lisa lives half the year in Memphis and the other half on the wildly beautiful coast of Nova Scotia.