Sunday, April 15, 2007

Southern Fried

I picked up Cathy Pickens’s first detective novel after hearing her speak at a conference. Since I tend to be picky about mysteries (as my book group can attest), I was a little hesitant to start it, thinking it might not be as entertaining as its author. It was a pleasant surprise to discover Pickens writes as well as she speaks.

In Southern Fried, Avery Andrews has returned to her hometown in South Carolina following a career disaster working as a high-powered attorney in Columbia. A practical joke brings her to the scene when a car is dredged up from a pond, resurrecting a 15-year-old mystery, and netting her a client. Avery’s other case – a factory under scrutiny by an environmental investigator – also heats up (literally) when an arsonist strikes.

Pickens has said she admired Nancy Drew and Perry Mason, and elements from both characters can be seen in Avery. In this book, Avery is probably closer to Nancy than Perry with her practical nature, perseverance, ruminations on aspects of the mystery, and frequent time behind the wheel of her car. (One wonders if it’s by coincidence or design that Avery ends up with a Mustang, Nancy’s car of choice in the revised volumes.)

Although the story is fast-paced, with significant space devoted to clues and plot developments, it’s also about Avery’s readjustment to being home and about life in a small town. As the following excerpts indicate, Pickens’s wry humor and conversational style also contribute to the story’s charm:

Aunt Letha’s rottweiler, a black mass of spoiled dog flesh named Bud, strutted at the end of his leash like one of Hannibal’s elephants. The family suspected he’d been named for an old boyfriend. Aunt Letha wouldn’t say.

The aunts had henpecked each other and the dinner to pieces before the time came to set it on the table. During the morning I’d snatched glimpses of the Thanksgiving Day parades on TV, roughhoused with my niece and nephew . . . and -- as my contribution to the traditional holiday feast -- burned the bottoms on the brown and serve rolls.

I’ve already started the second in the series, Done Gone Wrong, and am finding it as enjoyable as the Southern Fried; the third title, Hog Wild, was just released in hardcover last month.


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