Terry Shames’s debut, A Killing At Cotton Hill, is an ingenious take on the village mystery and our MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month for August. Set in a small central Texas town, it features retired police chief Samuel Craddock looking into the murder of his peer and the theft of one of his paintings. Terry will be here Friday, August 16th to discuss the book. As a warm up, here’s a recent conversation we had with her.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the character of Samuel Craddock come about?
TERRY SHAMES: I had written several novels that attracted good agents, but no one had been able to snag me a publishing contract. At a conference I attended, one of the authors, who had written eight books before she was finally published, made an impassioned speech. She said that in order to write your best book you had to write from your core of being. It made me determined to do that, hoping that it would produce a breakout book. I had written a number of stories over the years about a fictional town, Jarrett Creek, based on the town where my grandparents lived, and it felt very real to me. So I decided to make that my setting.
When I thought about the protagonist, someone who would investigate crimes, my thoughts immediately went to my grandfather. Although he only had a third grade education, he was sharp, and physically strong and fit into his 80’s. I decided that making him an ex-chief of police would work best for me.
MP: While elderly sleuths are a part of the mystery tradition, they rarely tackle issues of aging like yours does. What would you like younger readers to understand about someone Samuel’s age?
TS: This question really took me by surprise. I don’t think of Samuel as “elderly.” He could be any age. The love of his life has died and his knee is bunged up, both of which make him feel discouraged and at loose ends. Talk to any runner of any age who is faced with a sudden injury and you’ll find that, much like Samuel, they feel worthless and depressed. During the course of the novel Samuel reawakens to his abilities and his place in the community. Which is maybe the answer to your question. The message I have is not only for young readers—it’s for everyone. Integrity, decency, responsibility, compassion are all things that matter more in the long run than well-oiled joints.
MP: You also capture small town America really well. What do you think authors who are less experienced about those areas and their residents miss?
TS: I think it’s possible to know just about everything about the human condition from what happens in a small town. Writers who write carelessly about small towns probably depend too much on stereotypes. My aim in this series is to throw a light on the real people behind the stereotypes. One example is Ida Ruth, a religious old woman whom any writer or reader could easily dismiss as a busybody. Samuel points out that the preacher thinks he runs the church, but “he just thinks that because Ida Ruth lets him.” She plays a minor part in the book, but I show that she has other, less apparent qualities—“she’s a quality person,” as Samuel says—that has to do with keeping secrets.
People always think that residents of a small town know everything about everybody, but everyone has secrets that they keep from each other—and even from themselves. I hope readers of A Killing at Cotton HIll come away with renewed respect for those people who can keep secrets entrusted to them in a place like Jarrett Creek where lives can be transparent.
MP: Art plays an important part in both the plot and Samuel’s life. How much research did you have to do or did you use your own background?
TS: It was a combination of the two. Although my mother liked to have Impressionist prints on the wall, I wasn’t really introduced to original art until after I got out of college. I fell in love with the Impressionists, of course. But then I discovered abstract art and I was completely enthralled. I have a number of favorite painters, and they get mentioned in passing in the book. I have become very familiar with the California School artists, so it seemed a natural for Samuel to like them, too. I had to research a current painter whom I thought Samuel might be drawn to, and discovered the delightful art of Melinda Buie. I just knew Samuel would love her pictures of cows, and sure enough he bought one of her paintings. The young painter in the book, Greg, is based on a sad story that I won’t go into, but it’s a story that stuck with me and I wanted to give it room to become something better.
MP: This being your first book, did you draw from any influences?
TS: I wish this were my first book. It’s my sixth or seventh book. As I mentioned earlier, I wrote others that never found a publisher. The first one went to editorial committee—twice! The bottom line was that they felt it was “a little too Nancy Drew.” So I guess I’m like a slew of other writers who were influenced by Nancy. And I’ve always been an avid mystery reader, so I’m sure a lot of them have had their subtle influence.
But I have to say I have a different writer in mind as an influence: Eudora Welty. Her stories and books are full of mystery and subtle violence and secrets. I’ve read them all—many more than once, and if anyone wants to compliment me, tell me I have a trace of Eudora Welty in my writing.
MP: What do you hope people take away from A Killing at Cotton Hill?
TS: I’m very interested in what pushes people to take desperate measures to change their lives. Most of us don’t resort to murder to fix what’s wrong. Writing murder mysteries gives me a chance to show the terrible desperation of people out of bounds. I think in Samuel I’ve found a character most people will want to know: a decent person with deep integrity and a sense of responsibility. Samuel knows that people can do terrible things and still be worthy of compassion, even while he knows they have to be brought to justice. If I can speak to the need for more compassion for the worst of us, I will have done something worthwhile.
Copies of A Killing at Cotton Hill are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Shames appears here at BookPeople Friday, August 16 at 7pm.