|Mary Saums: The Valley of Jewels|
Press, (Hardcover) ISBN 1-57072-188-2, (Trade Paperback) 1570721890
"Gray smoke exploded in my face as I stood up, staring cross-eyed at the wrong end of a musket barrel. After wiping soot from my eyelids, I could see that my killer, a white-haired Confederate in full regalia, was as surprised as I that the gun's innards caught fire and blew up while he tried to load."
But beware, Saums hides heavy topics beneath her informal, chatty style. Although the book opens with Willi Taft wiping soot from her eyelids during a Civil War reenactment, her good friend, professor Jada Winston, fares less well. He dies. He dies just as surely from the ghostly hatreds haunting Northern Alabama as from the fatal wound. Readers get a sense of the anger that divided the North and South, in the 1860s and in the new millennium.
Saums adds another dimension to those hatreds with the arrival of local girl and national celebrity Althea Preston, America's Royal Diva. Althea's return to her roots gives rise to another tide of threats and harassment. The racial issues plaguing the old and new South swirl around the murder and the Preston family. Willi, in her capacity as private investigator, helps the family find answers. Yet, the cause for murder remains a mystery till the last few pages.
Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a Civil War diary. These segments remind readers of the personal stories of individual soldiers and their loved ones as well as the horrors of war. Plus, the clever reader may see these excerpts as bread crumbs leading them to solve past and current mysteries and murders.
Her characters, in particular Willi Taft, lead unusual lives. Willi, for example, works as a back-up singer and studio musician in Nashville while she learns the private eye trade, reflecting the author's years in the Nashville music scene. Willi's musical background drew her to the Grisham Faulkner campus and another fill-in job as a temporary teacher.
Saums doles out her story with a stingy, stingy hand. When she decides to tie up all the loose ends and pack away the characters until the next book, I want more. MORE!
Given these virtues, Saums' uneven pacing and rushed climax sit like zits on a bride's nose. But, the pleasures Saums offers, through her inviting voice and well-researched story, promise a read worth enduring a few blemishes.
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