‘There are no complete secrets in Homeville. Everybody knows part of the story.’
In 1932, Bead Baker was murdered in Homeville, Virginia. There was plenty of speculation, but the murder was never solved. Forty years later, in 1972, Bead Baker’s granddaughter Little Mary is found murdered on her front porch. Who killed Little Mary, and why?
Little Mary’s friend, Cotton Lee Penn, becomes involved in the investigation at the request of Attorney Max Mayfair. Mayfair has been retained by Little Mary’s fiancé Walker because he’s afraid he’ll be blamed for the murder. Cotton Lee accepts the request: while she thinks Walker may be guilty, she’s convinced that there is a connection between the two murders.
Cotton Lee Penn is an intelligent and attractive woman. She survived a childhood bout of polio which left her with a limp and a disfigured leg. Many of the townspeople, unable to see beyond Cotton Lee’s physical disability, underestimate her. Naturally, Cotton Lee uses this to her advantage.
‘You don’t ever keep your place, do you, Cotton Lee? You always try to be more than you are.’
The story shifts between 1932 and 1972. As Cotton Lee investigates the events around both murders, we come to know more about the lives of Bead and Little Mary, more about who might have murdered each of them, and why. The more Cotton Lee digs, the more secrets or partial secrets she uncovers. The lives of members of the Baker family, the black servants who work for them and the townspeople they knew. As the story shifts back and forth, it becomes clear that there’s more than one suspect and more than one motive to be considered. So many secrets for such a small town; so much kept hidden; so many assumptions about individuals based on rumour or skin colour. And a couple of nasty people as well: especially Sharp Dorn, the local minister in 1932. All of this leads to tension in the present, as some townspeople want the past left alone.
‘Maybe the past is alive and well in the present.’
I found this novel intriguing. While I was happy, by the end, to know who killed whom and why, it was the journey to that knowledge I most enjoyed. One of the reasons that this journey works so well is that many of the suspects in 1972 are also connected in some way to 1932, and there are several possibilities. There’s a view here of racism, violence and sexism that is uncomfortable but realistic. Cotton Lee Penn is an interesting character, able to tease facts out of rumour, able to uncover information because most people see her physical limitations rather than her enquiring mind. An unlikely hero.
I understand that this novel is the first in a series to feature Cotton Lee Penn. I’ll certainly be looking out for the next in the series.
Note: My thanks to the author, Tower Lowe, for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel for review purpose.