(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The early Elizabeth MacPherson novels by Sharyn McCrumb emphasize astute observation and deductive reasoning as Elizabeth unmasks murderers, using her academic training in anthropology, her skill in dealing with people, and her familiarity with the mores of both mountain and flatland cultures. Increasingly, though, as the series progresses, Elizabeth’s cases deal with issues of blood ties, family tradition, links to the land, and timeless domestic problems.

The interrelationship of past and present also figures prominently in the Ballad series. Nora Bonesteel, who possesses “the Sight,” intuitively knows that historical events often reflect the same emotions and personality traits seen in modern actions. The more pragmatic Sheriff Spencer Arrowood reluctantly learns to accept Nora’s authority in these matters, though he continues to prefer demonstrable evidence.

Lovely in Her Bones

Lovely in Her Bones explores themes of personal relationships and ethnic identity. Elizabeth MacPherson, who has finished a sociology degree, still has not chosen a career when she meets Milo Gordon, her brother Bill’s roommate and the research assistant for Alex Lerche, a forensic anthropologist specializing in Native American studies. Elizabeth and Milo are attracted to each other, but she is also intrigued by folk medicine and eventually by Lerche’s process of determining the ethnic identity of Native American groups.

Comfrey Stecoah, a Cullowhee leader, enlists Lerche’s help in proving that the Cullowhees are a Native American tribe and thus entitled to federal protection for their land. Lerche agrees to examine the ancient graves, primarily because this project provides a temporary escape from his wife, Tessa, and a chance for trysts with Mary Clare, one of his graduate students. Elizabeth decides to join the group, primarily for the chance to meet the medicine woman, Amelanchier Stecoah, who is Comfrey’s mother.

The project is opposed by Bevel Harkness, whose family owns land where a strip mine may be located, but it is also plagued by dissent among Lerche’s group. Lerche is so involved in his scientific research that he cannot relate well to other people, as both women in his life discover. Milo is similarly distant toward Elizabeth, and Victor Bassington, one of the undergraduates, annoys everyone with his grandiose lies.

When destruction of the project computer does not deter Lerche, he is murdered. Because the sheriff is unavailable, the investigation is conducted by Deputy Sheriff Barnes, who quickly calls in the local Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent. Although Milo believes Harkness is the murderer, Barnes’s primary suspects are Tessa and Mary Clare, because both have recently been rejected by Lerche. The subsequent murder of Victor changes the way the investigators view the crime and provides Elizabeth the clue she needs to unmask the murderer.

In this novel, the primary focus is the two murders; the themes of personal conflict and racial identity are present merely to suggest motivation for the crime, though there is some indication that both Elizabeth and Milo learn from this experience.

If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him

Though part of the MacPherson series, If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him appears to begin McCrumb’s transition to the Ballad series, developing themes that recur in those novels. The overall subject is marital conflict and the violence that sometimes results when marriages end. McCrumb drew the novel’s title from a battered woman’s comment: “If I’d killed him when I met him, I’d be out of prison now.”

Elizabeth—still reeling from her husband’s death—is an investigator for the law firm of her brother Bill and his partner, Amy Powell “A. P.” Hill. A. P. is hired to defend socialite Eleanor Royden for murdering her former husband and his new wife. Eleanor has openly entered the home of her former husband, Jeb, and shot him and his new wife. She has proudly proclaimed what she has done, and A. P. must save her from the death penalty. Compounding the problem is the fact that Jeb was a prominent lawyer and that the entire legal establishment has closed ranks against Eleanor. Even women who supposedly were Eleanor’s friends refuse to testify for her, and most of the men...

(The entire section is 1790 words.)