A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames
Editors always say you should start off with your weakest shot and then, assuming people keep reading, everything after that will appear to be an improvement. So here I go with the review of a first book in the style of a PI novel by an author who’s only one letter away from being a shamus: A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames (Seventh Street Books, 2013) A Samuel Craddock Mystery. After that, all the other obvious puns can go back in my mental locker for another time. From now on, I’m committed to improving the quality of the ideas and writing.
Reviewers sometimes label books as “easy reading” and, in many quarters, this designation is considered slightly pejorative. There’s an implication, as in the case of books aimed at the young adult market, that such books are designed to be read by people who don’t read so well and perhaps prefer escapism to the harsh realities of the world. Hence, the vocabulary and syntax have been simplified making the work more accessible, and the narrative is more on the cozy side. This is not to say the plot itself or the characterisations must always be dumbed down. Indeed, there’s no reason in principle why complex content cannot be expressed in simple language. But the more standard usage tends to imply the book in question is suitable for those of a sensitive disposition. Being of a robust nature, I tend to use the label for books where the style of the prose most closely fits one of my preferred models. That means I literally find it easier to read. I don’t have to pause at the end of passages to analyse what the author is trying to do. I find myself on the author’s wavelength for communication and can just get on with the process of scanning the text into the brain. For me, the prose on display here is simple but elegant. The characterisation is deft. The plot unwinds at a good pace. All of which makes this book a pleasure to read.
As to the plot, we’re into a first-person account of Samuel Craddock, a retired police officer in a rural area, being forced out of retirement when a woman he’s known from high school is brutally murdered in a nearby farmhouse. The local law is currently run by a drunken incompetent who only got the post through nepotism, and he doesn’t have the ability or the inclination to run a proper investigation. Determined to see justice done for the death of his friend, our hero reluctantly begins to assess the situation. The first step is collecting and sorting all the bills and paperwork in the farmhouse. There’s no will and, it seems, no money in the estate. Indeed, there’s a significant balance outstanding on a mortgage so the daughter and grandson as heirs, would have no obvious financial motive for killing her. Looking around the other relatives, there are no immediate suspects. Some are quite extreme in their religiosity, others merely unpleasant. Our hero has no idea why any of them would have wanted to kill her. The only indication is that, on the night she was killed, she telephoned our hero, alarmed she had seen a car parked outside the farm. She was afraid someone might be watching her. Later, others confirm an unknown convertible had been seen in the neighbourhood. Why anyone should be stalking the deceased is even more baffling.
So our hero rolls up his mental sleeves and slowly builds up a more complete picture of the woman he’s known for most of his life. On the way, he finally gets to spend some quality time with his neighbour who’s a lawyer and able to help when the grandson is arrested by the drunk (twice). They are a mismatched couple and it’s unlikely to develop into anything romantic, but they manage to get the legal side of matters sorted out. Other friends, one of whom is matched in age and has a more romantic approach, help get the social side organised. You can’t investigate a murder in a small town unless you talk with everyone. It helps when friends of friends can be bridges to a more honest discussion. For a time, it all seems quite murky and complicated but, in the end, the motive proves to have been rather more simple: merely desperate and callous greed. If there’s a false step in all this, it comes at the end where there’s a slightly redundant add-on clarification in the Epilogue. I’m not a great believer in genetics predisposing particular abilities or weaknesses. I favour the environment as having greater influence as people grow up. I think this final “twist” unnecessary. Putting all this together makes A Killing at Cotton Hill a highly enjoyable first novel. The second in the series is already announced so that’s something to look forward to.
For the review of the second novel by Terry Shames, see The Last Death of Jack Harbin.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.