Agatha Christie proved that great mysteries are driven by great characters and an exploration of the community those characters live in. Today Terry Shames reaffirms that fact with her latest novel, The Last Death of Jack Harbin: A Samuel Craddock Mystery.
The community Shames explores is the fictitious town of Jarrett Creek, Texas. The story begins with two best friends who join the Army just before the outbreak of the Gulf War. One is rejected and stays home to marry the girl they both loved. The other, Jack Harbin, returns from the war badly damaged. The two men are about to reconcile when Harbin is brutally murdered.
Ex-police chief Samuel Craddock has to investigate the murder. Craddock is a fascinating character with a good sense of humor and a kindly appreciation for human foibles. He might not consider himself a hero, but readers will.
“He has a strong sense of justice,” says author Terry Shames, “and doesn’t like it when things go wrong in his community because someone has strayed off course. At the same time, he doesn’t have false modesty—he knows when he’s doing a good job. His sense of self-worth is more important than recognition from outside.”
In the story, Craddock discovers dark secrets against the backdrop of small-town loyalties and betrayals. As Shames points out, one can think of Austin, Houston, even Los Angeles and New York as collections of small towns. To her, a community can be made up of people you work with, people you live near, the restaurants, bars and stores you shop in locally, or some combination.
“The appeal of writing about small communities,” Shames says, “is that crime seems more personal when people are familiar with each other. Crime is about secrets and betrayal, greed and jealousy, fear and retribution—all of which is more dramatic if you are familiar with the players.”
And which is more important in her work, the characters or the mystery plot? That may depend on who you ask. Shames says she started writing about the character, Samuel Craddock, before she knew the plot of A KILLING AT COTTON HILL, the first Samuel Craddock mystery.
“The second book, The Last Death of Jack Harbin, was actually a plot I had been kicking around for a while with another protagonist in mind,” Shames says. “I have always thought my characters and dialogue were especially strong, so imagine my surprise when LIBRARY JOURNAL gave Jack Harbin a starred review and they praised the plot!”
Since the TORONTO STAR said that “Shames has come up with a sleuth for the long haul,” both sides may have a point. And Craddock does have a future. He’s likeable, insightful and, despite being the ex-chief right now, he’s no amateur sleuth.
“He has the skills of a lawman, even if they are a bit rusty,” Shames points out. “In A KILLING AT COTTON HILL, Craddock rediscovered his ability to work as a lawman. In The Last Death of Jack Harbin, he readily agrees to take on the task of investigating a murder because the acting chief of police isn’t up to the job. In the third book, Craddock will move more securely into the role of chief because of circumstances I’m not going to reveal right now, but it’s an interesting turn of events.”
If you enjoy your mysteries on the stylistic lines of Bill Crider and William Kent Krueger, and if you agree with Agatha Christie that you can know everything about the human condition from what happens in a small town, you’ll want to settle in to a good read with THE LAST DEATH OF JACK HARBIN, A SAMUEL CRADDOCK MYSTERY.
Terry Shames grew up in Texas, and has an abiding affection for the people she grew up with and the landscape and culture of the town that is the model for Jarrett Creek. She graduated from the University of Texas and has an MA from San Francisco State University.
Terry’s first Samuel Craddock novel, A KILLING AT COTTON HILL, came out in July 2013 and was named one of the top five debut mystery novels of 2013 by MYTERYPEOPLE. She is gearing up for publication of THE LAST DEATH OF JACK HARBIN January 7, 2014, and is currently finishing edits on the third book in the series, DEAD BROKE IN JARRETT CREEK. Terry now lives in Northern California with her husband, two terriers and a regal cat.
To learn more about Terry, please visit her website.
Photography credit: Margaretta K. Mitchell