Haines the novelist has a penchant for the dark and violent, and she has taken time off from the Bones books to indulge this urge; Penumbra is indeed dark, violent, disturbing, nearly melodramatic.
Caroline Haines of Semmes, Alabama, has been publishing novels for many years. After a score of genre novels, she published Summer of the Redeemers and Touched, and then Haines seemed to have hit the mother lode with her Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series.
These novels are set in fictional Zinnia, Mississippi, in Sunflower County, and the amateur sleuth, Sarah Booth, lives in Dahlia House. It is obviously all very floral. Haines has written five of these so-called "Bones" books: Them Bones, Splintered Bones, Hallowed Bones, Crossed Bones, and Buried Bones, and will doubtless write a good many more. This series is filled with quirky characters?the ghost of the family's antebellum black maid, a transsexual newspaper reporter. These are "cozies," with any real savagery offstage, in the tradition here in Alabama of the Southern Sisters mysteries, written by the much-missed Anne George.
But Haines the novelist has a penchant for the dark and violent, and she has taken time off from the Bones books to indulge this urge; Penumbra is indeed dark, violent, disturbing, nearly melodramatic. This literary murder mystery is gothic, sweaty in the style of "In the Heat of the Night," and thoroughly readable.
In fictional Drexel, a small, hot, dusty "crossroads town in the middle of the pine barrens" in southeast Mississippi in 1952, life is suffocating. The various characters may be, in fact, endowed by their Creator with the freedom and the right to leave and pursue happiness, but nobody seems to be able to act on that freedom.
Jade Dupree is a beautiful mixed-race woman who owns her own little beauty parlor and also does make-up and hair for the corpses at the Rideout Funeral Home. Jade sees the ghosts of the newly departed, but that is not so rare in Southern lore. She should move away, to New Orleans or New York City, but doesn't.
Frank Kimble is the deputy sheriff of Jebediah County. Frank was in WWII, saw a lot of combat, was decorated for valor, was seriously captured and imprisoned by the Germans, and could have stayed away, but he came back. Frank is dead in love with the gorgeous and very nice Jade. Frank also sees the dead, so it would be a good match, but a mixed marriage is unthinkable in Drexel, Mississippi.
Jade has a white half-sister, Marlena, who is also a beauty. Marlena sets the plot in motion by cheating on her cold, nasty husband, the powerful and rotten Lucas Bramlett.
One day, Marlena and her daughter, Suzanna, are out in the woods with John Hubbard, Marlena's traveling salesman lover, and they are set upon. Suzanna disappears, Marlena is brutalized in a sadistic and disturbing way, and the murder mystery begins.
What one learns as the novel moves along?and move along it does?is never to live in 1952 Mississippi. There are cruel land barons, vicious lawmen, a sheriff who is more interested in reelection than in upholding the law. We find actual white slavery out in the piney woods, with a woman kept in chains and a teenage boy tortured for his captors' amusement.
The social queen bee of Drexel is Lucille Longier, Marlena's mother. Lucille is also the mother of mulatta Jade, and everyone in town knows it, but she is so socially and economically powerful that no one will say it aloud. At first one thinks, loosely, this woman is capable of anything in order to keep her position in Drexel, Mississippi. Then, it turns out, she really is capable of anything and is even more rotten than the reader thought she was.
The novel ends with the reader learning, literally, whodunnit, but it is still uncertain whether justice will be served or whether the good, virtuous characters will live happily ever after, or at all.
Also in this mix of characters we have the nearly nymphomaniacal, amoral Dotty, who early in the story will do anything, anything, to get the attention of cold, rich Lucas Bramlett, but Dotty changes and becomes, toward the end, rather heroic.