Monday, June 14, 2010

Carolina Cases: Cathy Pickens's Avery Andrews Mysteries

Reviewed by Jeanne

Avery Andrews was a corporate lawyer with a respect for the truth. That’s the reason she brow-beat her own witness when she knew he was committing perjury. It was a moral victory but at a personal price: Avery, once a fast track attorney with a bright future in Charleston, is fired and sent packing. With few other options, she heads back to Dacus, her small home town in the Appalachian foothills. She’ll have a quiet place to stay while she regains her equilibrium and decides what to do next.

When a rusty car is dredged up from a lake with a body inside, Avery finds herself trying to unravel a murder from years before.

Such is the premise for Southern Fried (F PIC Main), the first book in Cathy Pickens’ fine Avery Andrews series. Pickens, herself a lawyer, likes to call her books “puzzle mysteries” rather than cozies so that readers don’t feel misled. I would label it a “humorous regional mystery” because the sense of place is so important. Pickens writes her books with love and respect for the area and its people as does Margaret Maron. (Maron fans should give Pickens a try; I find their styles very compatible.) There IS humor, but we laugh with the characters and not at them. Even those we think might be stereotypes end up being real people. In the case of the first two books, don’t judge a book by its food-ladened cover or by the jacket copy: these books aren’t peopled by unbelievably zany Southerners nor are there recipes.

As for the writing, Pickens seems to get better with every book. Her sympathetic portrayal of small town Southern life rings true: the characters, the bullies, the steel magnolias, the sense of family, are all well done. Avery herself is a work in progress. She comes home feeling chastised, wanting only to recover and head back out to the faster paced life in the city, but gradually reconnects. More than that, she changes her opinions of people. There’s an especially fine scene in Can’t Never Tell when Avery considers the situation of someone she’s viewed as an adversary and makes a good-will gesture. It’s a small thing but telling.

Also obvious is that Pickens knows about what she writes: she grew up in Walhalla, South Carolina on the Georgia/North Carolina border. She’s been a lawyer, business professor, university provost, clog dance instructor and choir director, which gives her a great deal of practical experience from which to draw.

Done Gone Wrong: Lured back to Charleston to consult on a case, Avery's research into drug trials may lead her to a murder. (PBK black Main)

Hog Wild: Maggy Avinger is upset by her late husband's will: not only does he want his tombstone to accuse her of his murder, but he wants a huge tacky angel to mark his grave. (For me, this is the book in which Pickens really hit her stride. The writing is relaxed and sure, the characters very well done and the plot is intriguing. If you don't mind reading out of order, start with this one. Personally, I am one of the "must read in order" sorts.) (F PIC Main & Avoca)

Hush My Mouth: Avery's new client is concerned about her friend Neanna, who had come to Dacus and then disappeared. Even more sinister: Neanna's mother was murdered in Dacus twenty years earlier, and the crime was never solved. (F PIC and SSB F  PIC Main)

Can’t Never Tell: A carnival’s Fright House becomes really frightening when Avery discovers a mannequin is really a corpse. Then she’s goes on a picnic and a woman is killed in a fall, leaving Avery with two deaths but is either a really a murder?  (F PIC Main & Avoca)

Alas, Ms. Pickens declined to accept a contract for more Avery Andrews books. She said it was a difficult decision but she wanted to write on her time, not to deadline. According to her blog, she misses Avery but she now she has the freedom to remember why she wanted to be a writer in the first place. If she hadn’t made the decision before she wrote Can’t Never Tell, I think she was at least in the process. There’s no feeling of finality—the series could continue, and still may at some point—but I also felt there were some signs of parting. I hope it will be a temporary condition as this was a very fine book indeed.

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