The inside jacket description of Margaret Maron's sensational mystery novel LAST LESSONS OF SUMMER refers to her as being the modern-day equivalent of legendary Southern writer Margaret Mitchell, who penned GONE WITH THE WIND and won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for best fiction.
Although the comparison remains open to argument, Maron's LAST LESSONS OF SUMMER does strike a familiar chord with Mitchell's literary masterpiece by providing memorable characters and the many nuances of living below the Mason-Dixon Line. Like Mitchell, Maron has deep southern roots and is a highly acclaimed mystery writer. She has won numerous awards for her Deborah Knott and Sigrid Harald serial novels.
But LAST LESSONS OF SUMMER isn't a serial novel. Rather it is a compelling murder mystery featuring Amy Steadman, a recent newlywed from New York City who returns to North Carolina in an attempt to investigate the grizzly murder of her grandmother, Frances, patriarch of the Barbour publishing empire. Along the way, she also looks at her beloved mother's apparent suicide and experiences swirling family angst over inheritance issues.
Before the novel begins, Maron masterfully introduces to her readers a simple family tree that aids in following the story. Without a doubt, you will find it pressing not to flip back to the family tree as you read.
Maron is extremely gifted in providing tension, intrigue and drama in this 295-page whodunit. There is also a measure of romantic overtones, as Amy fights the notion of a cheating husband and a sudden attraction to the local detective investigating her grandmother's murder.
While LAST LESSONS OF SUMMER is well worth reading, Maron could have delved more deeply into the psyche of her characters, especially her main protagonist Amy. By the end of the story, readers may feel that they have just begun to understand Amy and her somewhat dysfunctional clan, which is why I wish Maron had not cut to the chase so quickly.
In addition, Maron needs to work on her description of North Carolina. Everybody realizes the weather is hot within the confines of Tobacco Road. She could have also dug a little deeper into the description of Raleigh. The book's story takes place in North Carolina, but unfortunately Maron's initial landscape of Amy's surroundings just doesn't evoke a memorable setting.
Despite these problems, LAST LESSONS OF SUMMER does leave you guessing --- and that is mystery writing at its best.
Reviewed by David Exum on January 22, 2011