- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2010

By Sharyn McCrumb
Thomas Dunne, $24.99, 336 pages

By J.A. Jance
Morrow, $25.99, 368 pages

When a mystery novel begins with a recollection of the lynching of an elephant in Virginia almost a century ago, it captures your attention. Sharyn McCrumb has a talent for evoking the darkness of folklore, and in this entertaining muddle of a book, she bounces between fact and fiction with her usual flair.

The plot of “The Devil Amongst the Lawyers” is based on the 1935 murder trial of Edith Maxwell in Wise County, Va., seen through the eyes of out-of-town reporters who view it with a mixture of curiosity and boredom. The youngest of the journalists is Carl Jennings, covering his first major story that will determine whether he keeps his job on a local newspaper. It is also Jennings who grew up with accounts of the Johnson City hanging of the elephant called Mary who stamped her trainer to death when he hit her sore ear.

According to a veteran reporter who covered the story, the elephant was impervious to bullets pumped into her, and the circus owners wanted to prove that it was safe for the locals to go to the show. So they advertised the hanging of Mary. “See the killer elephant pay for her crime.” And reportedly 500 people came to the railroad yard to see Mary strung up from a chain attached to a crane.

Jennings was an infant then, yet in the mists of memory he recalls “sad dark eyes in a shapeless gray face.” And he recoils from the brutal cynicism of the old newspaperman who brags how his coverage of the elephant story caused its hanging. As he puts it, “Hell, son, the pen isn’t mightier than the sword, it is the sword!”

The memory of Mary the elephant stays with the young Jennings when he seeks a career in newspapers and his attitude toward the trial does not reflect that of the journalistic pack who are in for the kill and who assume that the young woman on trial did murder her brutal father.

The reporters are an interesting group. There is Rose Hanelon, the “sob sister” who is preoccupied with a futile love affair. There is Henry Jernigan, a celebrity journalist of his time who is haunted by his memories of his life in Japan and its disastrous end in an earthquake in which he failed to save a child. In their way, they are all haunted and they find themselves in a haunted land.

Ms. McCrumb has a fine touch when it comes to conjuring up the remote mountain communities where the second sight does exist and those who have it would rather not acknowledge it. Yet there are moments when they see what no one else can see and have flashes of insight into future tragedy.

Like Nora Bonesteel who lives in a little house on Ashe Mountain where she sifts through almost a century of memories. One of them recalls how, at the age of 12, she joined her cousin Carl Jennings at the murder trial in Wise County. She couldn’t tell him whether the defendant was guilty or not, which was why he wanted her there. The young woman was found guilty and sentenced to life, but Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in obtaining a pardon for her.

That’s all Nora can tell a student, a distant cousin, who is researching the history of the trial. But he gets her attention when he offers to get up to let her “big white cat” out the door. Because there is no cat. That proves to her he is indeed a Bonesteel.

The title of J.A. Jance’s “Queen of the Night” may be quite misleading to the horticulturally uninformed to whom it might conjure up images of exotic dancers and voodoo. In fact, it is a reference to the blossoming of the magnificent night blooming cereus once a year in the Arizona desert. The queen of the night is a fragrant explosion of beauty except when its blooming is marred by the blood and death of which Ms. Jance serves up substantial helpings in this solid thriller.

Her plot ranges over half a century across California and Arizona, from an unsolved killing to a rash of murders. It has a sadistic serial killer who “sleeps like a baby” after disposing of most of his relatives with a shot to the head. It also seeks to explain why Diana Ladd, the wife of veteran detective Brandon Walker, is bedeviled by a hideous ghost who urges her to kill herself while her husband, who is on verge of resolving a long unsolved crime, finds himself frantic with worry about his wife.

Ms. Jance’s writing is brisk and her characterization agile, especially in the case of Dan Pardee, a member of a border patrol known as the Shadow Wolves. Along with his dog Bozo, whom he brought home with him from his service in Iraq, Pardee finds himself taking responsibility for Angie, a small girl who is the sole survivor of the bloodbath that accompanies the blooming of the queen of the night.

The author obviously knows her territory and she is skillful at evoking the customs and phrases of an Indian tribe that are woven into the pattern of the plot. It is a lively read.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun

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