A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames
Very proud of my Aunt Terry for publishing her first novel! As diligent readers of this blog know, my Aunt had a tremendous influence on my taste in fiction, supplying me with age-inappropriate novels at an early age, and rewarding me with loads of books most birthdays and Christmases. So it was with great pleasure that I finally got to enjoy something she wrote.
Writing a review of a work created by someone you love is always difficult. Honest feedback? Saccharine praise? Seems like there’s no good way to win. So let’s play this one straight but sunny:
Samuel Craddock used to be the chief of police in a fictional town based loosely on Brenham, Texas. Now he’s a good natured widower who collects regionally inappropriate artwork, raises cows, and flirts aimlessly with the old biddies in his community. When a good friend is found murdered, Craddock gets involved, helping out her grandson and, ultimately, sleuthing out the guilty.
Terry’s novel is a fast read in a genre style known as the “cozy.” This is a mystery characterized by a plucky, relatable protagonist, relatively bloodless murders, and a focus on hobbyist details of some largely unrelated past-time. (Think “Murder, She Wrote.”) In this case, the hobby is art collection, which frequently ends up feeling like the real focus of the novel, with the poor old murdered lady regularly taking a backseat to discussion of various modernist painters and the talents of the improbable grandson of the victim, himself a young artistic phenom.
The writing is light, with dialog that generally rings true, sentences which don’t try too hard, and excellent pacing that keeps the action propelled forward. At first the tense struck me as slightly odd… first person present tense isn’t something I think of as very common. (“I set my bag down inside the kitchen and stand looking around.”) Perhaps this is a standard in cozies? Terry has a good ear for the language of rural Texas, and (mostly) avoids the tendency to have her characters speak in corn-pone regionalisms.
The mystery itself is (oddly) reminiscent of some of Travis McGee’s adventures, with seedy land speculators, fallen women, and incompetent local law enforcement all constantly crowding around the protagonist. Unlike McGee though, Craddock is a gentleman, and he avoids any sexcapades or bad language. This keeps the novel firmly in PG territory, bloodless and sweet, as opposed to sanguine and salty. Again, I suspect this is true to the cozy form.
As a debut novel, and one that I understand to already have a sequel in the works, A Killing At Cotton Hill is a fun introduction to a kindly old detective, in the least trashy small town in fictional Texas. I look forward to more of Samuel Craddock’s adventures.
Big applause to my awesome Aunt for her first novel!