Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Killing at Cotton Hill: Terry Shames

When former police chief Samuel Craddock hears that his old friend Dora Lee Parjeter has been murdered, he decides to look into the crime. The current police chief is not only a drunk, he doesn't really care whether he gets the real murderer, as long as he clears the case. He has already decided the murderer is Dora Lee's grandson, who lives in a converted shed on her property. In addition to wanting to make sure the real murderer is apprehended, Craddock is feeling guilty because he had ignored Dora Lee's complaints about a person hanging around her property and spying on her.

The story is narrated in first person present tense by Craddock who has been retired for many years. Because he is not currently in law enforcement, this technically fits in the amateur sleuth subgenre, but of course his experience and contacts help.

When I start reading a new mystery, I want to become immersed in the story and to get to know the characters involved. So my gauge of enjoyment of a mystery is based on how well a book does those things.  Every author is different in how he or she tells the story, so the amount and type of engagement may differ, but if those two things happen for me, I am happy with the book. This book did meet my two biggest criteria for success. I was pulled into the story and I met a new group of characters who were intriguing. Some were likable, some were not, and some were irritating. For me it was not a perfect read, but close.

This story bears a good bit of resemblance to the Bill Crider mystery I read recently, Too Late to Die (published in 1986). Both are set in rural Texas, and the heroes are both recently widowed. The major difference is that Crider's protagonist is the county sheriff, and he has to keep his constituents happy. Bill Crider has good things to say about this novel:
Terry Shames does small-town Texas crime right, and A Killing at Cotton Hill is the real thing. It has humor, insight, and fine characters.
I usually like a book with a faster pace. This book was slower and quieter. In my opinion, that fit the setting, rural Texas. Now I have not lived in or even visited small towns in Texas, but I have lived in the South, and in general I would say the pace is slower, or at least it seems that way. The book is not overly long (231 pages) and a lot of plot is packed in those pages.

A description of Cotton Hill:
Cotton Hill, where Dora Lee’s farm is located, is a tiny hamlet roughly halfway in between Jarrett Creek and the county seat, Bobtail. It’s high summer and the drive out to Cotton Hill is pretty, the alfalfa thick on the ground, the post oak trees still green from the wet June we had. And the cotton is just a few weeks from ready to pick. It’s a terrible crop for the land, sucking up all the nutrients and leaving it as depleted as if it had been strip-mined, but it makes a pretty sight as we cut down the county road to Dora Lee’s farm.
One element in this story that made it more interesting for me was the protagonist's interest in modern art and how that fits into the story. Greg, Dora Lee's grandson, paints but she had never taken his ambitions in that area seriously. When Craddock walks into Greg's room he sees his paintings...
My wife, Jeanne, was crazy about modern art. She grew up in Fort Worth, where some of the best museums in Texas are located, and she was hooked on it. She dragged me to galleries with her, and it turned out I liked looking at art almost as much as she did. Before I met her, I liked pictures of bluebonnets and cactus, but she got me fired up about abstract painters.
So I have some knowledge of art, and I know the minute I walk into the room that I should have paid more attention to Dora Lee’s talk of the boy’s dreams. What is it that makes people think great artists have to come from somewhere else?
The funny thing is that Greg doesn't take Craddock seriously until he sees his collection of modern art.

My one quibble with the book is the use of present tense.  I don't enjoy stories told that way, and it occasionally threw me out of the story. I do plan to read the second book in the series, so the good points clearly outweigh this minor issue.

Other reviews with more detail:


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Publisher:   Seventh Street Books, 2013
Length:      231 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Samuel Craddock #1
Setting:      Texas
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

20 comments:

  1. I know just what you mean about the use of the present tense, Tracy. I'm not generally a fan of that choice either. Still, this does sound like a story with a strong sense of place and character, and I do like that. Glad you enjoyed it for the most part.

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    1. I think the important thing for me, Margot, in this case, was that I found the characters so interesting. Not all likable, however.

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  2. I find that if I can get past the first couple of chapters, I stop noticing the tense - not sure why, but it seems to work. This sounds a fascinating book, Tracy. Thanks for the recommendation.

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    1. Sometimes, I find that is true with writing in the present tense, other times it still bugs me. The style seems to be here to stay so I am trying to get used to it. Slowly.

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    2. Ouch. Went to buy a copy but was put off by the steep price. Might give it a miss for now.

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    3. Sorry about that. I totally sympathize. I try to keep my book purchases to sale items and book sales, but made an exception in this case.

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  3. The tense never bothered me at all. Very good book and a very good series.

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    1. I do look forward to reading the rest of the series, Kevin. I am always interested in how an author handles a second book in a series.

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  4. Thanks for the shoutout Tracy - as you know, I really really liked this book.

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    1. I do know you liked it, Moira, and at least one of the later books. One thing I have been wondering... Is there a scene with a beat up old car in the yard? I like the cover but I cannot figure out the significance. I must have missed something.

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  5. Tracy, thanks for linking, Glad you enjoyed it mostly.
    I don't think tense bothers me, unless it does. Sometimes something reads right, sometimes it jars. If I haven't noticed it, it's fine for me.

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    1. It is a very good book, and I will read the next one, Col. But to be honest, if I know in advance, I usually won't buy a book written in present tense. Too many other books out there. The only series that was present tense and I did not notice (mostly) was the Last Policeman trilogy.

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  6. Small town crime in rural Texas + ex law enforcer with a modern art collection + feeling to guilt for ingnoring victim's warnings = sounds like a great book!
    I appreciate your clear description on ' likes and dislikes' and if the book came up to your expectations. Great review and it will help me to read Crime Fiction with a critical eye!

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    1. Thanks, Nancy. Reading is very personal and each of my reading experiences is different. Sometimes I cannot identify what makes me enjoy a book. This time was easy though.

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  7. Good review. It would appeal to me especially as I now live in Fort Worth, Texas but present tense is hard for me to read.
    Ann

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    1. I sympathize, Ann, it is hard for me too. I lived in the Fort Worth / Dallas area when I was in my twenties (only for about three months). I think that is a good part of Texas to live in ... Lots of grass and trees. At least it was then.

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  8. Getting it via the library is also an option.

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    1. True, Kevin, I forget about that. Puzzle Doctor is in the UK, so maybe not as easily available there? Interestingly, the first bloggers who led me to this book were from the UK.

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  9. Well reviewed, Tracy. In spite of the popularity of this novel, both online and through reviews by our mutual blog friends, I haven't read it. I love first person narrative though not in the present tense so much, though I admit I haven't read many of those.

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    1. Thanks, Prashant, it is definitely worth trying if you can find a copy, either e-book or paper copy.

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