November 11, 2008
Covington comes home to Otis, South Carolina to help with the volunteer clothing drive and immediately gets involved in another of Mama’s sleuthing adventures. In MAMA CRACKS A MASK OF INNOCENCE, DeLoach’s last novel, Mama not only has to solve three murders, for the first time in her adventures, she also has to deal with an adversary, an investigator from the state Forensic department who refuses to accept her help or allow her access to information.
When Brenda Long, a high school senior, is brutally murdered, Hattie Russell, Mama’s supervise at the Social Service department, and Brenda’s mother Tootsie Long ask Mama to find out who killed her and why. Since Brenda is not a client, Hattie explains that she is interested because she and Brenda have a close relationship. Mama goes to see her friend Sheriff Abe to get what information she can and, of course, offer her help.
To her surprise, Lew Hunter, the state forensic investigator, has taken over the case because, he explains, they state has evidence that drug dealers are operating in Otis, especially in the high school. Mama refuses to believe the investigator. As in many close knit and stable communities, despite their knowledge of the community, Mama and her three friends are blind to the evil that they do not wish to see. Murder, fraud, blackmail, these things may happen but drugs, no way could such a thing happen in their town. In addition to solve Brenda’s murder, despite the investigator refusal to allow her to help, Mama feels she must prove him wrong about the drug dealing.
Two incidents convince Mama to change her mind about the investigator’s claim that drugs are being sold in the high school. The first is she and Simone find the body of Miss Sharp, a schoolteacher whom the school board is investigating for allegedly selling drugs to students. The second incident is the seemingly meaningless murder of Elliott Woods, the man who sells vegetables he grows in his garden. The question Mama poses to herself: are the three murders connected?
In the subplot, Mama immediately suspects Ray Raisin, a former resident of Otis and an old classmate of Agatha’s whom she seems to hate, is somehow involved in the drug dealing because murders and allegations of drugs in the high school happened shortly after he arrived in town.
MAMA CRACKS A MASK OF INNOCENCE is one of DeLoach’s best novels. It shows she was starting to tighten the plots and to maintain the suspense much better. Two elements stand out in the novel. The first is the way the plot is set up in the prologue. It is not the first time DeLoach has used the prologue but this one works much better. We see the murder take place but do not see the face of the murderer, nor is the name of the murderer mentioned. Besides sustaining the suspense, it allows us to follow Mama as she collects clues, experience her frustration, and see her determination. The second is that for the first time in her career as an amateur detective, Mama not only has competition, but the competition refuses her help. The surprise in the novel is real both for the reader and Mama, which makes the plot stronger. It is good even though practiced readers of the classical detective story will have guessed it about midway through.
Unfortunately for us, DeLoach’s death in 2001 deprived us of any further of Mama Covington’s sleuthing adventures. We can only wonder what other evil she would have exposed in the small community of Otis, South Carolina.