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by Joan Hess
Order:  USA  Can
Simon & Schuster, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Anise Hollingshead

The town of Maggody, home of moonshiners, beehive hairdo beauticians and Elvis fans, may appear to non-Southerners as an extreme caricature of daily Southern living. While laughing at the descriptions, characters and general antics of the community, they probably think, "No, that's too much, that couldn't possibly be the way it is down there...". As a bona fide Southerner, born and raised in a town known to one and all as Slapout and within throwing distance of the community of Possum Trot, I can attest to the fact that, while exaggerated, Ms. Hess's tales are eerily close to the truth.

In fact, my reactions while reading her Claire Malloy and Maggody series are usually nods of understanding and recognition, interspersed with shouts of laughter, of course. Growing up in rural Alabama in the 70's, I had a friend whose brother was called Bubba. Another friend was always called by her first and middle names together (the first being a boy's name). I knew several people who called cokes Co-Colas and drank them with peanuts inside the bottle, and everybody I knew listened to country music. While the South has become more like the rest of the US over the years, it's still pretty quirky.

In this 12th installment of Hess's popular comic mystery series, the information highway has made a pit stop at the hole in the road known as Maggody, Arkansas, population 755, give or take a few pigs. The high school librarian has been awarded a grant to bring progress, in the form of the Internet, to local students. Not only will the kids soon be surfing, but their parents, too, as free computer classes are to be offered at night for anyone interested, courtesy of Justin Bailey the new computer instructor.

Of course, Ruby Bee (our heroine and local sheriff Arly Hanks' mom) and her best friend Estelle (the town beautician) soon sign up. In fact, everyone but Arly is excited about the Internet, and are soon jabbering away to each other in, what appears to Arly anyway, an incomprehensible lingo. Arly would just as soon continue in this happy state of ignorance, but alas, murder intrudes and she has to get a whole lot closer than she'd like to the new cyber age.

Possible suspects and motives abound, with several interesting side stories as well. There are the inexplicable fleeting appearances on various computers of familiar faces with strange clothes (or lack thereof) and the appearance in the Pot 'O Gold trailer park of two unknown men who exhibit strange, even by Maggody standards, actions and a seeming shyness about getting better acquainted with Arly.

The story is peppered with plenty of Southern jokes, like Justin's wife Chapel's prediction that she'll end up joining the local book club's Condensed Reader's Digest group or learn to make watermelon pickles, that is, when she finds time away from her soap making. Then there are comments from Ruby Bee such as "you're acting like a hound what stuck his muzzle down a skunkhole". This book is a funny trip through the kudzu fields of the South. Other than the humor, however, there's not much substance to the actual murder plot, and the book's end might leave you feeling slightly dissatisfied. Even so, the familiar inhabitants are all in character, the situations are hilarious, and the dialogue is clever and amusing ... a pleasant read for a Southern Sunday afternoon.

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