North Carolina writer Ann B. Ross’ 16th “Miss Julia” novel starts a bit slowly, but soon hits the madcap goings-on that fans clearly love.
“Miss Julia Lays Down the Law” finds our heroine in hot water with the police.
Julia Murdoch, the self-appointed arbiter of all that’s fitting and proper in rural Abbotsville, North Carolina, has her nerves nearly frazzled as usual. Not only is the Christmas season approaching, with cookies to be baked and ornaments to be made for charity.
Worse, Connie Clayborn has descended upon town.
The wife of the manager of the big new plastics plant, Connie has moved into a glass-and-stone monstrosity in Abbotsville’s first (and so far only) gated community.
Coming from Up North (did she mention she went to Vassar?), Connie invites Miss Julia and the rest of Abbotsville society over for tea. There, she tries to sign them up for her new campaign to raise Abbotsville up from the squalor it’s in, mostly by bulldozing everything.
This doesn’t sit well with Miss Julia, of course, who doesn’t care how they do things in Boston or Switzerland. Connie’s words, however, fall particularly hard on Emma Sue Ledbetter, the pastor’s wife, who labored so hard to renovate the town park — the one Connie ridiculed as being tacky. Poor Emma Sue soon takes to her bed with a full-blown case of the fantods.
Prompted by Emma Sue?s husband, Miss Julia arranges an appointment to drop over, talk to Connie and give her a piece of her mind. When she arrives, however (in the midst of a windstorm), she finds Connie lying in her kitchen in a pool of her own blood. Before long, wouldn’t you know it, Miss Julia has left her fingerprints all over the place, with more blood on her hands than Lady Macbeth.
The police start to show more than a passing interest in Miss Julia’s whereabouts and alibis. And the town biddies — who didn’t care much for Connie, either — suddenly start to remember all the bad things Miss Julia said about her.
Clearly, if Miss Julia is to avoid a long stay in the hoosegow, she’s going to have to solve the crime. But who had a motive to kill Connie? Her creepy husband Stan (who’s taken to jogging right past Miss Julia’s house in the dark)? Emma Sue’s husband, the pastor (who’s started avoiding Miss Julia)? Or someone else?
It doesn’t help that Miss Julia’s husband, Sam, is off in Raleigh, serving on a state judicial committee. Or that her main ally in local law enforcement, Sgt. Coleman Bates, is currently sitting on a platform on top of a billboard out on the boulevard — in the middle of November — raising money to buy playground equipment.
Ross has her usual fun with Mayberry-style, small-town antics, compounded with a little unreliability in her narrator. (Is Miss Julia growing paranoid?)
The whodunnit is surprisingly good, with a solution that many readers will find hard to predict. What will draw most fans, though, is the humor in a long-ago version of North Carolina, where everybody who’s anybody has a loyal but sharp-tongued African American cook and maid.