Sunday, January 29, 2012
Review: Frankie Bailey's Mystery Novels
The cover of Frankie Bailey's 2011 mystery, Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave.
Beginning with her first novel, Death’s Favorite Child, I found parallels with my own books. [Hard cover: ISBN: 1-57072-145-9. Trade paper: 1-57072-146-7. Silver Dagger Mysteries. Overmountain Press. Copyright 2000]
Lizzie Stuart, Frankie’s amateur detective in this traditional mystery, is visiting Cornwall when she meets the first man she has been seriously attracted to, John Quinn. My Penny Weaver meets her lover, Kenneth Morgan, while she’s on vacation in Wales, in my first mystery.
Penny is white and Lizzie is African American, but both have the ability to see people as people first and look past skin color, culture, educational background, etc. In Death’s Favorite Child, the murder victim works at a small family-owned hotel near the beach. In Sands of Gower the dead woman on the beach is a guest at the bed and breakfast house where Penny is staying.
Frankie is gifted at exploring all the nuances of Lizzie’s feelings.
After reading the first four novels in the series I have a strong sense of Lizzie’s character. She has become one of my favorite amateur detectives. She’s quite human, debates within herself a lot, but wherever there’s a mystery or a puzzle, she’s drawn like a magnet. She has to find out, and she takes risks which drive Quinn nuts and anyone else worried about her safety or wanting to protect her. When she’s close to solving a puzzle, she absolutely can’t let it alone.
The second, third, and fourth novels [A Dead Man’s Honor, ISBN: 1-57072-171-8, 2001; Old Murders, ISBN: 1-57072-218-8, 2003; and You Should Have Died on Monday, ISBN: 1-57072-319-3, 2007, all in the Silver Dagger series] take place in Virginia, primarily at Piedmont State University, where Lizzie teaches Crime History in the School of Criminal Justice. Frankie herself teaches Criminal Justice at SUNY-Albany. She grew up in Danville, Virginia, and her fictional town of Gallagher is located on the Dan River.
In these later books present day murders are solved as well as murders that took place many years earlier, for instance, the murder of lynching, which is a more inclusive term than the hanging of a man by a mob, without his having the benefit of regular court trial. "The victim of a lynching might be hanged, burned, shot, and/or drowned. He--more rarely she–might also be tortured and mutilated. The majority of lynchings occurred in the South and border states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." [A Dead Man’s Honor, p. iv.]
There is a cerebral, almost serene, quality to these books. We take in all kinds of information not generally known, are taken inside horrifying events and have a front row seat as we learn what "really came down." We may know intellectually that human beings are capable of savage cruelty when they are afraid, greedy, jealous, protecting their position or image, keeping things from changing, but here we take it in easily, naturally, swiftly, as our own experience. Frankie’s passion is focused on taking us there so we witness these realities for ourselves.
In A Dead Man’s Honor we go back to 1921 in Gallagher, when a black man was shot, assumed to have killed the white doctor in town. This event has personal meaning for Lizzie because her grandmother had witnessed this lynching and left town on a freight train the same day.
Another African American professor in Criminal Justice is found dead. Is there a connection between the two murders? In Frankie’s books it’s likely. Old murders cast their shadow into the present. History is not dead.
Old Murders continues that theme, as Frankie researches a young black woman sentenced to die in the 1950s after killing her employer. Meantime a Maine developer is persuading the town council to let him build shops, condos, etc., along the river front, and a local developer is furious. A lawyer involved in the arguments between the developers also defended the young black woman at her trial in the 1950s.
In You Should have Died on Monday Lizzie decides to find her mother, who left town shortly after she was born. Lizzie was raised by her grandmother, who had died a few years earlier. Hester Rose had only bad things to say about her daughter Becca. Lizzie has hired a private detective, who finds people who knew her mother in Chicago, where Lizzie heads. The trail then leads to Wilmington, N.C., and to New Orleans. The old crime happened in 1968 and involved Black Panthers, the Chicago Mob, and Becca.
I found myself easily caught up in this fascinating, complex weaving between old murders and new murders, and I was pulled along, not only curious myself but worried about what Lizzie was getting her courageous, risk-taking self into this time. The plot web is always satisfying; the characters and places, alive.
What I especially enjoy and feel a kinship with is how Frankie handles race. There is no undercurrent of rage or resentment against white people or white Southerners because of the way they treated slaves, tenants, maids, or the whole black community then or now. Rather there is a presentation of many individuals, including Lizzie and Quinn, as human, as sometimes deeply flawed, sometimes showing courage and insight one gazes at in wonder.
I want to be there, I find, in every scene, hear every argument, puzzle over every new event and where it fits into the whole tapestry. I have put down each book satisfied, but eager to read the next one.
I myself hope to do something similar as a white woman who has often crossed the racial divide that persists in this country. I also wish to reveal the humanity that lies in us all, the courage and the stupidity, the sublimity, and the dark blood-lust.
Frankie "sees" in the way I want to in my books. You’ll be glad you read her books. They go way beyond mystery stories. They carve a place for themselves out of that elusive, rock-hard quarry we dig in to find the truth about our humanity and how to live well while we’re here on this earth.
Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave, A Silver Dagger Mystery from The Overmountain Press, Johnson City, TN, 2011. Trade paper: 978-1-935692-010. $13.95. 216 pages.
In this, her fifth mystery, Frankie Bailey puts her heroine into a weekend gathering of four ex-military friends, their wives and girlfriends, who are, for the most part, richer than she is and also hold high-powered jobs. We witness how Lizzie Stuart handles this complex situation in the context of the Virginia Eastern Shore, where the historical remnants of slavery and black tenant farming are still part of the landscape, with the more recent addition of Hispanic migrant workers, who are generally treated with suspicion and contempt.
Over and over Lizzie is made uncomfortable by the behavior of the others, and by Quinn, too, to whom she’s now engaged. He’s hiding things from her, and he’s also lying to her. I find I admire Lizzie’s combination of courage and discretion in a nearly impossible situation.
I once realized that what century you are living in can change with where you are geographically. To go into certain parts of the rural South is to return to the mid-nineteenth century, or even to the Middle Ages, when there were lords of the manor, knights back from foreign parts, and serfs, i.e., farm workers attached to the land who were essentially powerless economically and politically.
In this novel, the centuries mix and match. Lizzie, as a professional crime historian, becomes fascinated by two graves from the 1940s at the edge of a bean field, and visible from the highway: Rachel Robinson (1929-46) and Rachel’s Mother (1910-46).
When Lizzie looks in a folder Quinn had hidden from her, she finds a clipping about another death, in 1989, of a former soldier who had tried to kill her baby and then had killed herself. As usual, Lizzie has to find out about these deaths while she tries not to rock the boat at the beach house party. The boat not only rocks, a storm of strange and inexplicable events pursues her and Quinn from the beginning of the book.
I like the way Frankie opens up Lizzie’s mind to us, as she takes in the not so subtle assumptions among the house party about race, faces her mixed feelings and yet hangs on–both to Quinn and to her determination to find out what’s going on. Again, past and present intertwine, and the plot is slowly unraveled, until, with one jerk, the whole behind-the-scenes picture is revealed, and the puzzle pieces fall easily into place.
If you haven’t read Frankie’s novels yet, you are in for a treat.
***Frankie Y. Bailey is a criminal justice professor and mystery writer. Her non-fiction books include African American Mystery Writers (2008). Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave, the fifth book in her mystery series featuring crime historian, Lizzie Stuart, was released in July 2011. She has completed the first book in a near-future police procedural series. Frankie is a former Executive Vice President (the chairperson of the board of directors) of Mystery Writers of America. Currently, she serves as President of Sisters in Crime.
Frankie Y. Bailey