“I hated how white folks hated me.
I didn’t like hating anyone.
What I hated most, was how it made me feel.
I flung myself onto my bed when I got home. I screamed hard and loud into the pillow so that no one could hear me.”
I have a confession to make: I’ve never been partial to mysteries. In my fourth grade class, there was a period of time in which my teacher assigned us books from either the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys series to read. I hated it! I found the stories formulaic and uninteresting; the relentless push to ‘solve the mystery’ draining every last drop of pleasure out of reading. I am a bit more tolerant now, although it is rare indeed for me to seek out a new book that is classified as ‘mystery’. So while the subheading on this book, “An Elizabeth Parrot Landers Mystery” certainly gave me pause, I am glad I went with my gut and decided to give it a shot.
While there is indeed a mystery central to the novel, Melvin does an exceptional job of weaving that particular storyline into the myriad others, never putting what I typically consider undue pressure upon to reader to figure out ‘whodunit’. Her protagonist, outspoken, athletic, awkwardly maturing Lizbeth is a treasure to read. Set during the summer of 1972, Lizbeth and her little sister, Lena, are in Ahoskie, North Carolina with their nurturing, salt-of-the-earth Aunt Alice and Uncle Frank. Shortly after their arrival, the sleepy town is rocked by a grisly murder, and the ever-curious Lizbeth sets out to determine who is responsible. Life, however, inevitably gets in the way: from unfriendly, meddling neighbors, toothless elderly relatives with dark pasts, to ugly confrontations with unbridled racism, this young woman learns that the world is much more nuanced place than she thought, utterly impossible to divide into simple terms of black and white.
Truth be told, the mystery quickly took the backseat to the gorgeous, slow-burning tale of Lizbeth’s various adventures. This story feels visceral, almost warm, in in its unerring attention to the various supporting characters and nearly tangible imagery. Perhaps I should have been paying more attention to the clues the author dropped; spent some more time synthesizing the evidence, but ultimately, I enjoyed the dawning surprise of the big reveal. It would have seemed a disservice to zoom in on this one subplot rather than simply enjoy Melvin’s gift of holistic storytelling. Or am I just a lazy reader? If that means I can lie back in the swaying grassy fields of Ahoskie, soaking in the summer sun while watching the clouds drift by, breathing in the scent of fresh porkchops sizzling on Aunt Alice’s stove, then doggone it, that’s just fine by me.
Rating: 4/5 – For an unflinching refusal to water down the uglier aspects of life, a refreshing, wholly realistic lack of resolution to each storyline, and all-too vivid descriptions of food that will leave you hungry and salivating.
Recommended For: Coin-collectors, future lawyers, and winter-stricken warmth-seekers. (Note: trigger warning for attempted rape in Chapter Seven.)
Mr. Samuel’s Penny, Treva Hall Melvin, The Poisoned Pencil (Imprint of Poisoned Pen Press), Scottsdale, AZ, 2014.