Small Town Lies
A Review of The Necessary Death of Nonnie Blake by Terry Shames
I was stymied when my niece moved her family to a small town in the Texas Hill Country some years ago. Why would anyone leave the Bay Area for a couple acres of scrub oak and a pickup truck in a town so small you’ve missed it if you yawn? Not that I have anything against small towns. I grew up in Ross so long ago it still retained a small town character. We knew everybody, and people looked out for each other. Eddie’s Ross Grocery and the Sunday social in the Rectory after church were rich in gossip. Officer Flowers kept the peace and investigated crimes—usually something to do with petty theft. Life seemed tranquil and safe.
But still—my family has taken up residence in a small town several states away? I didn’t get it—that is, until I discovered Terry Shames’s delightful mystery series set in a small Texas town. Shames won the Macavity Award for best first novel in 2013 for A Killing at Cotton Hill, the first Samuel Craddock mystery set in Jarrett Creek. She has since published The Last Death of Jack Harbin, Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, and her latest, The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake, all chronicling the slow as molasses lifestyle and the dark secrets festering below the veneer of peacefulness of this sleepy town.
What Loretta doesn’t know she can find out at the hair salon or at church. It’s Loretta who has her finger on the pulse of the town when Nonie Blake returns to Jarrett Creek after a twenty-year stint in a private mental institution. She’d tried to hang her little sister when she was fourteen and Jarrett Creek is in an uproar. Loretta declares, “She was a dangerous girl and she’ll be a dangerous woman.” Samuel doesn’t think she’d have been let out if this were true; anyway her family has taken her in. But within a week, Nonie turns up dead in the Blake family’s stock pond and Chief Craddock finds few clues to what may have happened. One thing is certain, Nonie was murdered and her reclusive family remains tight-lipped about her, the committal, and why she had come home. What Craddock can get out of them doesn’t make sense.
Samuel Craddock’s method of investigation is low-key. He’s from the old school. He talks to people and learns Nonie was released from the institution ten years before and lives in a nearby town with another former inmate from Rollingwood—more information that doesn’t fit, like the rest of Craddock’s leads. He’s stumped and he’s saddled with a rookie cop, Maria Trevino, who comes with attitude and ideas about how police work should be done. And it isn’t Craddock’s way: “I have a good chance of getting to the bottom of a problem through my knowledge of the town and its workings; through the past and my relationships with people.” Trevino wants to look for hard evidence using methods that make Craddock uncomfortable and worse, make him feel old. He begins to question himself and fears he’s losing his edge to age. Travino turns out to be an asset and teaches Craddock some valuable tips on modern police work while learning how Jarrett Creek works. It takes some detecting but the two (and a little dog) uncover the layers of lies and cover-ups that go back a generation to finally reveal why Nonie Blake’s murder was necessary—to the killer.
I fell in love with Samuel Craddock and Jarrett Creek in A Killing at Cotton Hill and the feeling has persisted through five books. It’s through Samuel Craddock’s personable voice that readers make acquaintance with Jarrett Creek. These characters have become friends—I feel like I’m sitting with them eating cookies and drinking tea. I care that Samuel worries about aging and whether Loretta’s feelings have been hurt; I care that Jarrett Creek has money problems and fear that modern life is going to change the values and lifestyle of its residents. I’m rooting for Samuel to get a dog and a date. It’s the authentic small-town vibe and the folksy dialog combined with Shames’s adept ability to plot a surprising and quirky murder investigation, coupled with her masterful characterization that makes the series shine. I feel like I’ve lived in Jarrett Creek—and now my darling (and only) niece and her brood (dogs included) live there.
I was reading Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek when I last visited family in Hill Country. I’m looking forward to my next visit when I’ll root-in deeper with Shame’s rhythms of small town Texas and the real lives of family (all boys under 16). Maybe I’ll meet Samuel and Maria over lunch at the only Mexican restaurant in town. We’ll recognize each other because I’ll have my nose in book 6!