A Reckoning in the Back Country by Terry Shames is the seventh book in the Samuel Craddock Mystery series, where acting Police Chief Samuel Craddock investigates the murder of a visiting physician, whose mangled body is found in the woods (available January 9, 2018).
Do you remember the book that got you to fall in love with a genre? I honestly don’t remember which exact Nancy Drew novel made me a mystery fan forever at the tender age of 8, but now that I’m older and better at cataloguing my reading, I can say with certainty that Terry Shames’s A Reckoning in the Back Country has opened my eyes fully to the charms of the small-town police chief mystery series.
I think a large part of why this—of all the books about small-town policing that I have read and enjoyed to date—has given me a newfound appreciation of the subgenre is how authentic it reads, in large part because it refuses to traffic in tropes. Our hero, Samuel Craddock, is an older, widowed white man in the small Texas town of Jarrett Creek. His female neighbors dote on him, though he’s officially dating an emotionally damaged recent divorcee. His office is small: just him and three deputies, one of whom is temporary. Par for the course, so far.
But Samuel is as large-minded as he is large-hearted; he’s aware of the racism and sexism of others and navigates these in a way that makes him one of the best allies of minority characters in contemporary fiction. He isn’t a ladies man, despite the romantic entanglements that arise in this novel, and he seems realistically confounded by the women in his life even as he refuses to condescend to them. His favorite deputy is the alternately tough and charming Latina Maria Trevino, whom he’s mentoring in hopes of encouraging her to stay in Jarrett Creek permanently. And though he’s smart and conscientious and good at his job, he knows when to ask for help:
I was planning to call the Department of Public Safety first thing, and they’ve beaten me to the punch. The man on the phone is my old pal with the Texas Rangers, Luke Shoppe. “I believe your ears must have been burning yesterday, and not in a good way,” he says.
“Schoppe, I thought you were going to retire. Did they hire you to maintain the gossip channel?”
“Don’t change the subject. Sounds like we’re going to have to send somebody over there to solve the murder of that man out at the lake. Looks like you’re not as up to the task as I thought you’d be.”
“I’m not up to it as much as I thought I would be either. I’m stumped. But I’m not going to let my ego run away with me. I was going to call over to the county this morning and ask for some help. It’s taking more resources than I’ve got.”
There’s none of the territorial rubbish you often get from books where different jurisdictions bump shoulders because Samuel sincerely believes in seeing justice done. And even when he decides to go ahead with the case instead of handing it over, it’s because he has better reason than just ego. Samuel Craddock is easily one of the best fictional lawmen I’ve ever had the privilege of reading about.
So here, in the seventh book of his namesake series, he’s investigating the disappearance of a vacationing doctor. Dr. Lewis Wilkins is in town for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday when his wife reports him missing. Soon after, a body is discovered viciously mauled in the woods. As Samuel investigates the man’s past and present, he finds himself uncomfortably drawn back into the world of dogfighting. While still a boy, Samuel was brought to a dogfighting arena by his good-for-nothing father, an experience that scarred him for life:
In my memory it’s hard to pick out what was worse, the fury of the dogs, massive beasts with their ears clipped, who went after each other making hardly a sound, all their energy going into tearing each other to pieces; or the brutal whoops and hollers and snarls of the men who had bet on them. They screamed, urging their dogs to fight even after they were bleeding and torn. The rank smell of cigarette smoke blended with the odor of sweat and blood. Money changed hands out in the open, and more than one fistfight broke out over whether a dog had been pulled too early. After a couple of fights in which dogs were carried or dragged bleeding from the ring, I told my daddy I wanted to leave. He’d have none of it.
I managed not to disgrace myself by crying or puking, but I couldn’t control trembling. It was the longest day of my young life, and the day I knew that my daddy did not have my best interest in mind.
Along the way, Samuel also manages to pick up a puppy that, despite his protests, he swiftly becomes attached to. Now, I’ve read tons of mysteries that feature adorable pet sidekicks, but this was definitely the least cloying, most convincing depiction of that special bond between person and pet.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I read a book at once so sympathetic and spare. Terry Shames balances the fullness of her ideas with lean prose that perfectly fits her subject and the characters she brings to life so vividly. While I’m sorry that I've never encountered this series before now, I am glad that I have the previous six novels to enjoy while I eagerly wait for the next installment to arrive.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.