Margaret Maron Talks About “Sand Sharks”

After tackling immigration issues in Hard Row and the crisis of rampant residential and commercial overdevelopment in Death’s Half Acre, Margaret Maron’s latest Deborah Knott mystery, Sand Sharks, finds series heroine Judge Deborah Knott taking a vacation of sorts to a summer judge’s conference down in Wrightsville Beach — and Maron herself seemingly taking a break from some of her exploration of North Carolina’s most pressing social and political issues. But when Deborah discovers the corpse of a fellow judge, her beach trip takes a dark turn. As potential motives for the murder emerge — with a wide range of suspects among the other judges attending the meeting — so too does another pattern take shape: an examination of ethics both personal and judicial and of the costs for letting those ethics lapse.

Sand Sharks has already enjoyed a wave of strong reviews: from the Winston-Salem Journal, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and even the New York Times. Over Labor Day weekend, I’ve finally had a chance to read the novel myself, and not only did reading the book offer a quick holiday beach trip but it turns out that a character with my name shows up as a witness in the novel, so I was “there” in more ways than one. (Check out page 221 for my cameo appearance.)

As Maron prepared for a quick vacation of her own, she indulged me with a quick email interview about Sand Sharks, which I’m happy to share here.

Art Taylor: I enjoyed the novel’s set-up — reminding me in many ways of some classic Agatha Christies: A vacation destination, a group of characters who each have a motive for the killing the victim, all of them together in one place when the killing happens, opportunities and motives abounding.… You even include scenes of investigators charting who sat where at the restaurant where the murder occurs, and who left when, and who saw who last. How consciously were you exploring that classic form?

Margaret Maron: I’m very conscious of writing a traditional fair-play mystery, which means that I have to show the reader everything Deborah sees. I was not consciously trying to echo Christie, but have always resisted trying to plumb the depths of my subconscious, so it’s quite possible.  Playing fair with the reader is harder than keeping things up my sleeve, but I can always misdirect the reader by showing them more than is actually relevant.

Many of your books tackle important, often ripped-from-the-headlines issues facing North Carolina today, while other novels don’t explicitly tackle such heady themes. Had you planned here to take a “vacation” yourself from some of the social topics that have frequented recent books, or had you planned all along to focus on those issues of judicial ethics which gradually build over the novel?

Well, the killer’s motive was indeed ripped from last year’s News and Observer headlines, and then I just gave the victim several more instances of judicial malfeasance so as to provide possible motives for others.  So far as I know, no one judge has been accused of that much bad behavior, but each act has been attributed to at least one of our judges. As for the setting, I’ve been to several judges’ conferences down at Wrightsville Beach and each time, two or three of the judges will say, “You ought to set a murder here.” So I did.

Wilmington’s film industry and the fictional TV courtroom show Port City Blues provide a quick counterpoint to questions of courtroom practice and ethics. What crime shows or legal dramas do you particularly enjoy? And which ones send you scrambling for the remote?

I don’t watch very many crime shows.  My current favorites are The Closer with Kyra Sedgwick and Burn Notice.  I’ve enjoyed Boston Legal, and I used to like the CSI shows until they became too repetitive.  And I deplore the fact that juries (and much of the public) think that every case gets that much instant scientific attention and results. A thief can be caught with the stolen television in his hands, and if the defense attorney can say that the police never checked the TV for his client’s fingerprints and DNA, you can get a hung jury. Appalling. Did you know it takes about seven weeks to run a tox screen?  And that a complete one can cost several thousand dollars?  Or that autopsies don’t happen overnight?  Nor does running someone’s DNA?  CSI makes it seem as if all these are quick and automatic. I once heard a blood spatter expert describe how he spends the first couple of hours on the witness stand educating the jury as to what is and is not possible and that it’s not CSI.

One of the characters notes that Port City Blues has to keep its male and female leads apart to keep the show interesting: “everybody knows what happens when the guy gets the girl on those shows. Kiss of death.” Has the marriage of Deborah to Dwight Bryant caused any challenges for you?

Yes, but it really was the logical step for her AND I hadn’t teased my readers with a long-running will they/won’t they in which they acknowledged interest in each other. Deborah was completely oblivious to their feelings until shortly before the wedding. Most of my readers seem to like it that they’re together, but I do have a couple who wish she was still out there catting around.

I have to ask a question about my own cameo role. You’ve had lots of fun putting the names of real-life folks — friends and acquaintances and even a bookseller — into your novels. When did that practice begin? And how have people reacted?

Some of the cameos are there because I’ve donated a slot to a charitable fund-raiser. The rest are there because I need to name a walk-on character and it’s fun to give a shout-out to those friends who would be amused to see themselves there.

I knew that this practice was called Tuckerizing, but until you asked, I never looked it up. This is from Wikipedia:

Tuckerization is the act of using a person’s name in an original story as an in-joke (e.g. Mount Kirby in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City comics). The term is derived from Wilson Tucker, an American science fiction writer and fanzine editor, who made a practice of using his friends’ names for minor characters in his stories…. Many science fiction authors auction off tuckerizations at science fiction conventions with the proceeds going to charity.

In most cases, tuckerization is used for bit parts, an opportunity for the author to create an homage to a friend or respected colleague.

And of course, Art, this sentence could be emended by subbing mystery for science fiction because most mystery conventions do feature charitable auctions now and authors do contribute cameos.

Finally, that same question that ends every interview: What’s up for Deborah next?

Christmas Mourning takes place back in her native Colleton County amid the family’s Christmas frenzy.  Too many of our teens are dying in car wrecks because of alcohol, inexperience, and cell phones, but was it murder or an accident? [Note: That book is due out in 2010.]

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