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There's a chill in the air in Maron's 'Summer'

| Sunday, Nov. 2, 2003

Margaret Maron has written a fine series of mysteries about a judge, Deborah Knott, set in the South.

Her new mystery, "Last Lessons of Summer," also is set in the rural South, but it features a different young woman, Amy Steadman.

It also sustains a tone of on-the-edge unease.

Unlike Knott, Amy is rich. Her mother, Maxine, had loved two stuffed animals as a child, and Maxine's parents wrote and illustrated books about the animals. Now, there's a big company producing Pink and Blue and Max merchandise.

As the book begins, Amy's grandmother has just been murdered. Amy, who lives in New York, goes to her grandmother's house in North Carolina, ostensibly to go through the dead woman's belongings and papers; but it's also a way of putting off having to deal with her doubts about her husband's faithfulness.

She'd also like to find out why her mother committed suicide when Amy was 3.

The reader doesn't fear that Amy will be murdered, even when it seems likely that a family member, not a stranger, killed her grandmother. But Maron creates and enfolds the reader in a steady mood of unease. Amy doesn't feel entirely comfortable in her grandmother's house.

She meets several relatives she doesn't really know. (She would benefit from the family tree placed at the front of the book to help readers sort them out.) In fact, this is a novel that is more about family relationships than it is about clues leading to a murderer.

Amy doesn't know who killed her grandmother, but she begins to fear that she, at 3, might have found a gun in a bedside drawer and shot her mother, then been taken to an aunt's house before the police arrived.

Or, maybe that isn't what happened.

At the book's end, Amy figures out who killed her grandmother. The reader also learns how Amy's mother died, whether Amy is heading for divorce and who becomes head of Pink and Blue and Max Enterprises when her father retires.

This book is a rarity among current mysteries by not being part of a series. At least one doesn't expect Maron to have Amy digging around among her relatives for more murderers -- although there are enough relatives left to make that possible.

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