November Mysteries Roundup

The Reckoning, Harvest of Secrets, Homeward Hound

Celebrated by some, condemned by others, the Southern gothic occupies a prominent place in American fiction.

John Grisham’s 40th book—“The Reckoning” (Doubleday, $29.95, 432 pages)—offers a full-blooded example of the genre, and it’s a winning one.

Clanton, Miss., Oct. 9, 1946: Well-off farmer and town pillar Pete Banning drives to Clanton’s Methodist church—an institution to which he and his forebears have belonged—and fatally shoots its pastor, the Rev. Dexter Bell. Making no attempt to flee, Pete—a wounded and decorated World War II veteran venerated by the townspeople—is arrested and charged with first-degree murder, a capital offense.



When asked for a motive, Pete says, and repeats, “I have nothing to say.”

Several months before the killing, Pete committed his wife, Liza, to the state mental asylum. Son Joel is in his senior year at Vanderbilt University; daughter Stella is a sophomore at Hollins College. Sister Florry lives on her half of the Banning property.

To go further would violate all rules against spoilers. But know that Grisham, who lives in Albemarle County, melds a mystery—why did Pete kill the preacher?—with the realities of the Jim Crow era and the horrors of war.

Dark, moving and addictive, “The Reckoning” again confirms Grisham’s bona fides as a first-rate storyteller and displays his deft creation of full-bodied characters. But be warned: The faint of heart or weak of stomach should know that his 40th book contains scenes of stark brutality.

With a nod to Harper Lee and William Faulkner—and a final twist worthy of Agatha Christie—“The Reckoning” approaches Shakespearean tragedy, complete with a destructive web of secrets, suspicions, lies and death. And those who consider works of popular fiction merely ephemeral trifles should accept that their dismissive arrogance might be wrong.

PAIRING WINE AND SECRETS

Old bones. Old love. Old times. And a fresh corpse.

That’s what you’ll find in “Harvest of Secrets” (Minotaur, $26.99, 352 pages), the 10th installment in Northern Virginia writer Ellen Crosby’s series featuring Lucie Montgomery, the proprietor of Montgomery Estate Vineyard near the border of Loudoun and Fauquier counties.

When lightning damages an ancient tree on the estate, workers uncover a skull. And when a forensic anthropologist determines that the victim is a young woman who was murdered, Lucie wants to know who she was and who killed her.

Meanwhile, French aristocrat Jean–Claude de Marignac, the winemaker at La Vigne Cellars, the winery next door to Lucie’s, is stabbed to death, and La Vigne employee Miguel Otero—an immigrant from Mexico who is scheduled to take his citizenship test soon—becomes a person of interest. But Crosby peoples her story with a wealth of alternative suspects—Jean–Claude was a notorious womanizer. Even Lucie, who as a teenager had a crush on Jean–Claude during a summer in France, finds herself in the array.

Crosby continues to display her superior narrative skills, her deft advancement of her recurring characters’ lives and her knowledge and love for the region of which she writes.

And that’s not all. She also invests her novels with history—and events—that resonate in the present. Among those in “Harvest of Secrets” are the nation’s continuing racial divide and its immigration firestorm. Thought-provoking as well as entertaining, it marks another exceptional effort by Crosby.

HOUND ON THE HUNT

For the Jefferson Hunt, the Christmas event represents a seasonal highlight, with riders, horses, hounds and foxes combining for a day of good sport and fellowship in the brisk air and beautiful scenery of Albemarle County.

But not this year in “Homeward Hound” (Ballantine, $27, 336 pages), the 12th entry in Rita Mae Brown’s series starring “Sister” Jane Arnold, the hunt’s master of foxhounds.

An invited guest, Gregory Luckham, president of Richmond-based energy giant Soliden, goes missing when a blizzard forces an early end. Many landowners oppose Soliden’s plans for a pipeline through the area, and when Luckham is not found, some wonder about his fate. But when a body is discovered under the snow, the mystery deepens.

Brown, who lives near Greenfield in Nelson County, is master of foxhounds for Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club. With deep and broad knowledge of the sport, the area and the people and animals who inhabit it, she infuses “Homeward Hound”—and the entire series—with unmatched authenticity, Southern charm, beloved characters and engaging storylines.

Take time to go to ground with this holiday treat, set to publish Tuesday.

Jay Strafford is a retired Virginia journalist who now lives in Florida.

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