Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Death at the Outer Banks: Shooting at Loons (1994), by Margaret Maron

To date Margaret Maron has published 18 mysteries about her most popular series sleuth, North Carolina judge Deborah Knott.

Before launching the Knott series in 1992, Maron between 1981 and 1991 published seven novels about police detective Sigrid Harald, yet it was the Deborah Knott series that really took off (it started off with an immediate bang, the first Deborah Knott mystery, Bootlegger's Daughter, taking the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony and Macavity awards).

The vivid local color of the Deborah Knott mysteries--almost all of them are set in Maron's native North Carolina--and the strong character of Judge Knott herself have made the series perennially popular.

In a 1998 interview, Maron commented about the problem of balancing in her work the varying expectations of mystery readers:

I know that some people wish I would concentrate more on the classic murder mystery and forget about all the other ramifications, but I just can't seem to do it.  Killer Market is probably in this series my "purest" murder mystery because it had no big social side issues; yet people liked that book the least.  I got all kind of grumbles face-to-face and in the mail about "Well this all is very well, but send her back to Colleton County.  Show us her father, show us her brothers."  You write the books you write, and I'm trying to please myself and my readers; and sometimes I'm really caught in the middle.

In Shooting at Loons (1994), the third of Maron's Judge Knott mysteries, you can see the pull of these diverse--and arguably divergent--interests.  On the one hand, the novel is a local color story, about the traditional inhabitants of North Carolina's Outer Banks (specifically Carteret County, where Beaufort is located) resisting changes brought on by increasing modernization and commercialization, while on the other it's a series character novel about Judge Knott and her kith and kin.

All this within the framework of a traditional mystery story.

the passing tramp
at Kitty Hawk, NC
So how well does the book succeed at meeting these varied reader interests?  As a local color mystery novel, Loons succeeds quite well, I think.

Likely it helps that I have been to, and have long been fascinated with, North Carolina's Outer Banks, a beautiful and historically fabled part of the United States.  Maron does a great job of making the people and the unique atmosphere of this coastal area come alive.

I also enjoyed the mystery, what there was of it.  Rather improbably, Knott stumbles on both the novel's murders, but her investigation of them (there's quite a bit of economic skulduggery) is rather desultory.

To be sure, we are long past the era of the gentleman (or gentlewoman) amateur sleuth with all the time in the world to investigate for kicks a baffling mystery. As a judge, Knott is obliged to hear cases and this takes up a bit of her time (she's in Carteret County substituting for an ailing colleague).

Still, Knott seems to find more time for lovin' than for sleuthin', during her stay on the coast enjoying amorous interludes (the first one interrupted) with two men, the one an old flame from her law school days, the other a red hot new one.  This will please mystery readers who are interested in relationship drama and who want their detectives to have eventful love lives. I, on the other hand, was wanting Maron to give readers a little more of that old time detection (it's good enough for me).

There are clues and indications to culpritude, though Knott follows the wrong trail and only realizes who the killer is when this person seems about to do her in next.  One and only one material clue ties this person to the murder, but it is a good clue.

Overall, Shooting at Loons struck me as a worthy detective novel.  If it's not a top flight modern mystery, it does occasionally take wing and soar.

For another modern southern mystery, more whimsical than Maron's but quite enjoyable, see my review of Bill Crider's A Mammoth Murder (2006).


  1. The Outer Banks is a frequent destination for us so I would like the story for that aspect but I'm like you more mystery than romance and side issues. I love the cover though!

    1. Peggy Ann, I know, I love the locale, but I did find myself not needing all the detail about Judge Knott's romantic life. But then that tends to be the modern fashion!

  2. Very interesting. I am starting to read new writers based on your recommendation (enjoyed death of an old goat last week); with recent entries in mind found a margaret scherf book (nearest i could get to modern cosy)- found plot a bit murder she wrote, except the dialogue was so full of political rhetoric it did keep me reading- at one point a cop exasperates that just cos we now all have the right to vote, it doesnt mean we should- i think it was satire but could equally be heavy handed politicising. most annoying aspect was that murderer seemed plucked from nowhere as if time running out. Last time i felt like that was a paul temple book, when durbridge seemed to have written a plot that went 'i'm making it look like the killer is x' but in a later chapter went ' look- fooled you, the real killer is (quick -eeny meeny miny mo) him! no reason just is. not all the paul temple books are like that as i enjoyed the four i'd read previously. One more thing - loving gun in cheek, another one i heard about thanks to your good self

    1. Gun in Cheek is great. I'm going to keep looking at modern cozies throughout the year, I think.

  3. I am more mystery than romance, social observation and side issues as well. I don't mind side issues or social observation in small doses but the plot must come first with good character development.

    It's interesting to read Maron's comment about modern readers expectation on what a mystery novel should be.

    p/s: Nice to see you in person. ;-)

    1. Yep, that's me. I'm not normally that sun-toasted, lol.

      I think older mysteries tend to have a balance between the personal stuff and the plot that better suits me.

  4. I started reading Margaret Maron way back when -- her first mystery, "One Coffee With" (1981), was part of an unattractive series of paperbacks from Raven House Mysteries, which I think was an effort of Harlequin predating their Worldwide imprint, and stood out like a gem in that poorly-selected and poorly-packaged line. Its current value is probably as much as the sum of all the other books in the line together. Maron produced a bunch of Lt. Sigrid Harald mysteries before moving up to her current series, but I'll always remember her for her debut novel and a later entry in that series that is the only mystery ever set against the backdrop of a cribbage tournament -- "The Right Jack".
    I too found her observation about the expectations of modern readers interesting, and telling. I've heard people say occasionally that they wouldn't mind if their favourite authors just put out books about the lives of their series characters without bothering to add a mystery element!

    1. Well, Noah, I do wonder why some modern mysteries even bother with the mystery element, they are so interested in other things. A lot of modern cozies could be, for example, Jan Karon novels, if you took out the murders. Would people really miss them?

      I liked this enough to make me want to look at some later Marons in the Knott series, though I'm just not caught up in the protagonist's personal life. I liked it better when drama flowed through, not out of, the detective--the detective as conduit, not originator, as it were.

      Agree about Sigrid Herald.