In Bootlegger’s Daughter (1992), Margaret Maron introduced Deborah Knott, a young attorney, who managed to solve a couple of murders while campaigning for a district court judgeship in her native North Carolina. With its sharply defined characters, its local color, and its Southern humor, Bootlegger’s Daughter captivated its readers and won the four top mystery awards. In each of the Deborah Knott mysteries that followed, Maron has sent her heroine, now a “travelling” judge, to hold court in a distinctive section of her large, diverse state. There, while socializing with friends, kinfolk, and talkative acquaintances, Deborah learns enough about local history and current scandal to know where to begin looking when a murderer must be found.
In Uncommon Clay, the young judge’s assignment is to preside over marital property settlements in Randolph County, North Carolina, a region famous for its potteries. One of the cases involves James Lucas Nordan and his wife Sandra Kay Nordan, managers of the Nordan Pottery, which is owned by James’s father Amos. When James is murdered, Deborah becomes suspicious about the supposed suicide of Amos’s other son, Donny. The violence escalates after Donny’s illegitimate son turns up and Amos threatens to leave the pottery to him instead of to his legitimate grandson. In a climactic final scene, the murderer is identified, and Amos learns what his indifference to others has cost him.
Uncommon Clay shares a number of themes with the other books in the series: the importance of place and family, the destructive force of egotism and greed, and the changes that come with “progress.” Maron’s grasp of such issues, applied to an interesting set of characters in a unique community, makes Uncommon Clay a fascinating book, as well as an effective mystery novel.