The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake
A Samuel Craddock Mystery
Terry Shames
(Seventh Street Books)
They say that when they were young, Nonie Blake tried to hang her sister Charlotte in a tree: made her stand on a chair, threw a rope over a limb, hung it around her neck, took the chair away. Fortunately older brother Billy rushed in and saved the kid's life.

Obviously this Nonie is the kind of a child you have to keep an eye on, so when she gets old enough the family --- wealthy by the standards of Jarret Creek there in the Texas panhandle --- ships her off to the north, to a place called Rollingwood. It was one of those nice places that rich delinquents end up in: none of this gray institutional stuff.

Only now it's twenty years later, and Nonie finally comes back to visit her family. Stiff mother Adelaide, father John --- he's a little off, what with age and what they used to call "senile dementia" --- Billy, now a rodeo star, son Skeeter, and Charlotte . . . the would-be hangee.

The set-up is nicely paced, detective Craddock is a nice old man --- one who would rather be caring for his cows than being sheriff --- and when, after her first week at home in two decades, someone bludgeons Nonie and leaves her floating in the pond out back, we aren't a bit surprised, nor worried: the good sheriff will figure it out.

Craddock lets us in on the mystery as he works on it, especially when he finds out that there's more to Nonie than twenty years in the booby hatch. And especially when the body turns out to be not naughty Nonie but a look-alike stranger.

§   §   §

All we ask of a good mystery is not too much gore, a fair pacing (we're in no hurry to get to the end), characters who aren't made out of cardboard, and a couple of surprises. We get them all here.

For instance, the sheriff likes to talk to animals, seemingly more than people. This is Craddock on his newly acquired cow: "My communion with the bull is short."

    I don't have time to sweet talk him for long, just say a few words so he gets used to the sound of my voice while he recovers from the trauma of being trucked over here. You wouldn't think something as sturdy looking as bulls would be delicate, but they are. If you rush things with a new bull, you could end up with a sick or insecure animal that can't or won't perform his job.

Not of course, explaining the bull's "job."

Craddock is a small-town man, one of benign opinions, and shares them easily with the reader. This on meeting with the parents of Nonie's "companion,"

    They offer a cup of coffee, which I decline, and a chair that looks to be the least comfortable in the room, a wooden chair that doesn't get with the rest of the matching upholstered furniture. I suspect they dragged in here specifically for my visit, so I couldn't linger. I wonder if they are always inhospitable, or if they are feeling that way because of the subject matter.

"I don't see how we can be of any help to you," Shelby says.

"Why is that?"

"We didn't have any kind of relationship with her," he says.

"When was the last time you saw her?"

He turns to his wife. "What do you think, Mother, five years?" I've always thought it was odd for a man to call his wife "Mother" (opines the sheriff).

As a good detective story must, all comes clear in the end, and there is the obligatory moment when our normally doughty detective goes on a verbal bender, explaining the whole deal. If you are in a hurry, it's on page 242 --- but I would go slowly, because this one is fun.

And, o yes --- only in Texas: one of the things that helps nab the killer is a footprint. Where? Not on the livingroom rug, or on the front steps, or the mud around the lake.

No no --- it is there in the nearby woods, as the detective explains, where "You stepped in a cow patty and left footprints when you got rid of the weapon."

Only in Texas.

--- Pamela Wylie
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