Doing It at the Dixie Dew. Ruth Moose. Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Press. Hardback $24.99; 272 pp. ISBN-978-1466846555. E-book also available.
I’ve read a lot of mysteries since I got hooked on them back in 1980, and Ruth Moose’s Doing It At the Dixie Dew is unique. To see its cover one might think “cute” and “cozy,” but you won’t be able to fit it neatly into a category. It defies all the patterns and stereotypes. I have never read a mystery like it. Ruth has been publishing short stories and poetry for years, and now she’s a mystery writer. Then this first one was the winner of the Malice Domestic First Best Traditional Mystery Award from St. Martin’s Press. She doesn’t break the rules. The sleuth is there, the victim, the suspects, the search for whodunit, some close calls for Beth Henry, the owner of the new Dixie Dew Bed and Breakfast in Littleboro, North Carolina, as she tries to figure out who killed her eighty-plus year-old guest on the first night she was open.
The thing is that the murder and the solution aren’t what make the narrative plunge forward. It’s the voice, the vitality of the language, the authority of the writer. We are mesmerized by the words themselves, the easy but compelling pace of the sentences that carry us along so nonchalantly but with a powerful grip that won’t let go.
The dialog is funny, unexpected, wild, and yet completely natural, alive, believable. Ruth’s tale springs out of that strong Southern oral tradition and its literary giants like Faulkner, but she writes nothing like any of them. The plot is original, the characters are familiar to a degree if you read Southern literature but very much their own selves, They push the edge, break all the stereotypes even when they seem to fill them. You almost don’t care whether the mystery is solved or not. Blasphemy? Maybe, but the genre gets a new lease on life in this book, and then there are the metaphors. Only a writer with her own way of seeing and naming human experience can nail the things we know, that yet time after time are always fresh, always give us a way of seeing that we didn’t have before.
Here are some examples:
“He knows his jewelry. He probably teethed on it.” (146)
Wisteria hid a lot of latticework that had not been painted in years–a step away from toothpicks for termites. (146)
Verna was your pillar of the community. She was your Sunday School teacher type. Your first grade teacher. Your mama when your mama wasn’t around. When the Verna Crowells of the community went bad, the rest of the world was heading downhill and racing like a bobsled. (179-80)
“Who says I have a mama? I may have sprung fully formed from the loins of Apollo.” (180)
“I suspected both of us could hang regrets like rags from every bush we passed.” (183)
As in a Russian novel I read once, the dead still live. Beth’s grandmother, who raised her, Mary Alice, is as much character as any of the living people in the book.
There’s a love theme, but it’s very understated. It’s all in the behavior, not in the words. A lot of today’s “cozies” feature a romance between a hunk who appears and makes the heroine sleuth swoon, then wonder: is he a bad guy or a good guy?
Scott, who like Ida Plum, shows up to help and charges very little, is definitely a good guy. We know even if Beth has some doubts. Then Beth comes to like and trust him. He reveals his character by his behavior which is kind and always helpful. He worries about Beth and tries to warn her that the world out there in this small familiar town is not safe any more. He’s not a man who has to rescue, though he sometimes wants to. He listens when Beth insists she’s going to do whatever she is bent on doing by herself. The traditional mystery bans “explicit sex,” and the love between Beth and Scott is at the other extreme, and yet there is early a subtle sexual attraction.
I am reminded of the way Jane Austen gives us those sentences with a sting in their tail, of Zora Neale Hurston’s reveling in folk metaphors and making up her own. You’re in for a treat in this one. In every way Dixie Dew is strong as fiction, in setting, characters, plot, and keeping you reading, but if you think any of it is predictable, think again.
Doing It at the Dixie Dew is Ruth Moose’s first novel. It was published by St. Martin’s Press in May 2014, after she won the $10,000 Malice Domestic First Best Traditional Mystery award in 2013. In the past forty years she has published 1200 poems, short stories, book reviews, and columns. She has three collections of short stories: The Wreath Ribbon Quilt, Dreaming in Color, and Neighbors and Other Strangers. She has had her work published in Holland, South Africa, England, and Denmark as well as all over the U.S. Of her six collections of poetry, the most recent is The Librarian and other Poems. She received a MacDowell fellowship, and in 2009, a prestigious Chapman fellowship for teaching. Originally from Albemarle, she now lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina, where she continues to write and teach since her retirement from the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Creative Writing Department in 2010. With an authentic Southern voice, her characters resonate the humor and tragedy of everyday lives.