County of Offenses
Murder. Assault. Arson. Assaulting an arson investigator (damn). Impersonating farm fresh eggs.
Known Gang Affiliations
Date of Offense
Killing at Cotton Hill is the first of the Samuel Craddock Mysteries by Terry Shames. The novel won the 2014 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery by Mystery Readers International, which is a huge deal. And deservedly so. I don’t know Terry Shames personally, but I do know this: she can write. Her Samuel Craddock Mystery series has been a huge success, and currently stands at eight books:
A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary (Prometheus, 2019)
Man, are those all great titles or what?
In a Killing at Cotton Hill, Samuel Craddock’s longtime friend Dora Lee Parjeter is found dead in her kitchen. Many, including current Chief of Police and town drunk Rodell Skinner, like Dora Lee’s grandson for the crime. Young Greg Marcus is an artist of singular talent now living on his grandmother's farm, where he spends almost all of his time painting.
Shames does some interesting things with this series. For one thing, protagonist Samuel Craddock isn’t Lone Wolf McQuade. Don’t get me wrong, I love the film Lone Wolf McQuade. I love it so much, I would marry it. In fact, I still really want an old rebuilt Dodge Ram Charger like Chuck Norris drove in that movie. So if anyone wants to, you know, pick me up an early Christmas gift—there’s your hint. But in his sixties and a man of reason, Shames’s protagonist can’t just roll up and kick everyone’s teeth out. He needs to be more clever and subtle.
A widower and retired local police chief, Craddock is a man with a sharp intellect and strong sense of both justice and propriety. A curious man. A man with empathy. But he’s still just a guy; an everyday Texas retiree you might find sipping coffee down at the feed store. He has a cat named Zelda. He walks with a cane and gets tired. He’s weighed down by the same life baggage, and insights into the human condition, that most of us accumulate as we age. There are no hard-drinking cardboard cutout caricatures to be found here. If Craddock wants answers he has to play it smart. This makes good, old classic sleuthing the brisket and beans of the series.
Young Greg’s noteworthy artistic ability plays a big role in the story—as does the idea of art itself. Modern art, and what art means to different types of people, is explored through the book in many ways. Craddock was turned onto the contemporary art scene by his late wife, Jeanne—very much a presence in the book, and in Craddock’s life, despite her passing years ago.
Though many in his small town don’t understand what they’re looking at, Craddock’s home sports a stunning collection of original works. And it’s not just that Craddock has an interest in art. Because it was a passion he shared with his late wife, it’s a part of his life for which he feels a strong passion and sentimentality. The potential wrongful conviction of young Greg motivates Craddock on many levels—as a friend of the family, as a strong investigator, as a just person and as a lover of art.
The author name drops awesome artists such as Wolf Kahn, Wassily Kandinsky, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Wayne Thiebaud, Manuel Neri and others throughout the story. The unlikely juxtaposition of this retired small-town Texas lawman who's really into modern art makes for an interesting character.
The series is set in fictional Jarrett Creek, Texas, which is “located in the middle of a triangle that makes it one and a half hours’ drive” from Austin, Houston and San Antonio. The author doesn’t lean on setting, though, as is so tempting for many Texas authors. Aside from an eccentric and believable array of small town characters, as well as the presence of farmers and ranchers and honky-tonks, this relatively low-key part of Texas lets Shames really focus on the story. It’s not quite a cozy, but it’s a clean, lean work. In addition, she does a good job of presenting the combination of community and claustrophobia found in small town life—whereby everyone’s world is made both better and more complicated by constant interconnectedness.
As Craddock takes us through the mystery, plenty of twists and turns and layers and red herrings and secrets are exposed. All while somebody goes to extreme lengths to deter and distract Craddock from finding out the truth about Dora Lee’s murder. And Shames does it all in a way that makes you feel at home with the people and places she’s created in Jarrett Creek. Well plotted and with compelling characters, the series was a joy to discover. So if you’d like a well executed traditional whodunit with a Texas twist, and you haven’t yet started this series, pick up A Killing at Cotton Hill.
Verdict: Guilty of creating a Texas-style traditional mystery with an interesting protagonist and all the hallmarks of a series worth commitment.
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