April 11, 2008
In Mama Solves A Murder, the first novel in the series of nine, Nora DeLoach uses the classical detective formula. Suspicion points to several characters, confusion abounds, a seemingly guilty person is proven innocent, and a seemingly innocent person is proven guilty, and the violence is off stage. Like the amateur detectives in the classical tradition, Mama, does not use forensic science in solving the murders. She depends upon her knowledge of human nature.
Mama does, however, differ from the classical detective. She is Black, married, and has three children. In addition, she solves murder mysteries in her hometown of Hampton, South Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia, thus, at times, getting away from the small town community and taking on two cases simultaneously.
Although the title suggests that Mama solves one murder, she solves two unconnected murders—one in Ridgeland near Hampton and the other in Atlanta. This is a departure from the Western tradition in the structure of the classical detective novel, which requires that if more than one murder occurs, they must be connected in some way.
The novel opens with the murder of Mama’s Aunt Aggie Nelson and Aggie’s daughter Rita Ginn in the small community of Ridgeland. They are burned to death in their homes. Suspicion falls on the most likely suspect—Reverend Jones, a preacher who belongs to no denomination and has no congregation.
Simone, Mama’s daughter, is the narrator of their crime solving adventures. She works as a paralegal for a lawyer in Atlanta and brings Mama the second case. Her boss, attorney Sidney Jacoby, is defending Simone’s former college roommate Cheryl LaFlamme who is accused of murdering Harold Young, a man she alleges molested her when she was a young girl.
The murder of Mama’s aunt and cousin is not a subplot, and the case of Cheryl does not appear to be the main plot. The two are completely separate, except for the thematic connection. Both involve the issue of molestation. The Atlanta murder occupies about two-thirds of the novel, while the Ridgeland murders occupy only one-third.
Following the classic element of setting, the Ridgeland murders happen in a small community. There is also the flavor of southern gothic: molestation, incest, preacher with no church. Mama believes Rita was murdered because she knew or suspected Reverend Jones was molesting a child. Jones also has a boy sixteen and a seven year old daughter.
The Harold Young murder occurs in an urban setting, which is a departure from the classical locale of detective fiction. Mama has to travel from her small town community of Hampton to Atlanta to solve what is closed door mystery. Cheryl LaFlamme shoots Harold Young while he is sitting in a chair with his back to her. Employees in the office witness the shooting. There is no doubt that she shot him. The question is did she kill him?
Although DeLoach handles the two plots with skill, it appears that the murder in Atlanta was an afterthought, and that the Ridgeland murders were supposed to be the main plot. It is as if she started with the Ridgeland murders, but felt she needed to establish Simone’s life since she is the narrator. This required her send Mama to Atlanta but not just to visit Simone. The longer plot involving the Atlanta murder allows Mama to demonstrate her detective skills.
DeLoach almost pulls it off the handling of two unrelated plots simultaneously, but most Western readers of detective fiction would spot it right away and probably not like it.
Despite the deviation from the classical plot of the traditional detective story, DeLoach tells a good story.