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One on One: That ye be not judged

By D.G. Martin

Judge Knott, that ye be not judged.

No, it’s not just a typo in a Biblical quote.

Instead, it is meant to be an insider’s signal to the fans of the popular North Carolina author Margaret Maron to whom this column is a tribute.

Maron died last week following a stroke, leaving behind a group of admiring fellow authors, bookstore owners and loyal readers.

She was best known for her 20-book mystery series featuring Judge Deborah Knott and Knott’s extended family in rural North Carolina. It all began 30 years ago with “Bootlegger’s Daughter.” Set in fictional Colleton County, it was obviously inspired by Johnston County, just east of Raleigh where Maron grew up.

After a few years living in Brooklyn, where her husband Joe grew up, she brought him home where they settled on part of her family’s former tobacco farm.

People sometimes ask me what is the best book to learn about North Carolina.

If the questioners like murder mysteries, I tell them to try one of the books in Maron’s Judge Knott series. Knott is a smart country woman lawyer who became a state district court judge in a typical North Carolina rural community. Deborah Knott is smart and good, but not perfect. She lives amongst a large farm family led by her father, Kezzie Knott, the former bootlegger, and his 12 children from two marriages, plus spouses and numerous grandchildren.

Having a former bootlegger as Judge Knott’s daddy and a few other mischievous kinfolks whose lives sometimes intersect with the law add spice to Maron’s stories.

Knott’s many friends and work colleagues also enrich Maron’s books. Everybody in Colleton County seems to know everybody else. Rich and poor; black, white and Hispanic; farmers and townspeople; old and young; good and bad. We meet them dealing with problems of the environment, migrant worker issues, hurricane damage, political shenanigans, real estate development and other challenges in addition to the murder mysteries that move every book along.

Maron used Judge Knott not only to solve crimes, but also to make her readers aware of social issues and other local government challenges – always giving the viewpoints of society’s underdogs. At the same time, she shared the rich and not always pretty family life in a North Carolina small town.

Every now and then, Maron moved the action to other North Carolina scenes. The furniture market. The Seagrove pottery community. Or the mountains and the coast. Along the way, Maron’s readers get a good look at our state and its people.

Maron brought back many of the same characters in book after book. She makes them so real and compelling that some fans say they read the books just to keep up with the characters in Deborah’s family. Most important in recent books was a deputy sheriff named Dwight Bryant. First, he was just one of many characters. He worked his way up to boyfriend, then fiancée, and then husband. Maron stretched out that courtship over several books, reminding this reader of the courtship of Father Tim and Cynthia in the Mitford series of books written by another popular North Carolina author, Jan Karon.

Maron’s cousin and neighbor, former state poet laureate Shelby Stephenson, responded in poetry to my request for his thoughts about Margaret and her beloved husband Joe, a great artist who became a popular fixture on his wife’s family’s farmland.

Stephenson wrote, “And…Margaret…Brown…Maron. You know…Joe…Is a fine artist, painter, mainly, …From…Brooklyn. What visits…Just to listen.”

Like Shelby Stephenson, we will remember Margaret Maron and promise her we will not forget to “Judge Knott.”

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times. (Sunday’s airing preempted for special fundraising programing)

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