Beauty and Brutality in the Southern Mystery/Thriller
As a Buddhist and writer, looking back on my Southern upbringing, I am fascinated with the Tao or coexistence of opposites — shrouded in darkness and mystery. Nowhere is this paradox more striking than in the customs, natural beauty, and brutality of the southern United States.
Where I come from, we serve sweet iced tea and call you “honey” even if we don’t know you. We ask you to “come back” as you leave, even if we don’t want you to. We scrape our feet at your front door whether or not they’re dirty to show respect before entering your house. We offer you food, even if we don’t have any left, praying you’ll say “no, thank you.” While we’re eating one meal, we talk about the next one over fried chicken, rice and gravy, and homemade biscuits. Before we badmouth somebody, we preface it with, “Bless her heart” so we sound respectable. And we say, “yawl” to make sure everybody’s included.
But there’s a brutal underbelly to this genteel Southern hospitality. Many of us — not me of course — dodder along in our pickups, throwing friendly hand-waves at strangers, shotguns mounted firmly in gun racks behind our heads “just in case.” The innocent-looking church ladies planning a reunion under the shade trees in the churchyard welcome you with open arms, then gossip and shun you behind closed doors because you’re “different.” If you’re from Florida looking to buy mountain land, you’re out of luck. Mountain folk call Floridians “Southern Yankees,” and smile and point them in the wrong direction.
Southern traditions — the savory food, cloaked messages full of contradictions, dysfunctional relationships, and deep pockets of religious fundamentalism — exemplify the beauty/brutality paradox. As a child I remember camp meetings where fireflies punctuated the dark summer sky and believers fanned away the sweltering heat as they gathered under huge tents to worship. I loved to peek through slits in the tents to watch preachers scream warnings of the devil and threats of burning in hell. I watched worshipers’ arms raised to the heavens, clapping their hands, speaking in tongues, running up and down aisles, sometimes cutting cartwheels in ecstasy as they became “slain in the spirit.”
Classic Southern fiction — from Tennessee Williams to Flannery O’Connor to Pat Conroy — have excavated these fundamentalist religious traditions, teasing to the surface the underlying dysfunction with one suspicion, one misunderstanding, and one murder at a time. Like old varnish, they peel off the veneer of deeply-flawed, eccentric characters hiding behind a façade of respectability and superiority. Southern mystery writer John Hart said, “Family dysfunction makes for rich literary soil. It’s a place to cultivate secrets and misdeeds where betrayal cuts deeply, pain lingers, and memory becomes timeless.”
The natural beauty and wildlife of the South also reflect the paradox. The embroidered branches of sprawling live oaks droop with heavy beards of Spanish moss, stretching low to brush the lush vegetation. Blooming azaleas burst with color, the humid evening breeze carrying perfume of Confederate jasmine, honey suckle, night blooming cereus, and gardenias and magnolias. The night calls of whippoorwills and hoot owls and the monotonous droning of tree frogs echo across a moonlit sky.
On the flipside, we observe the brutality. Underneath Florida’s Suwannee River, stunning marine life and primeval underwater caves — some as tall as ten-story buildings, wide as three football fields — draw divers across the world. Eerie lime rock formations, resembling gargoyles and screaming faces, carved for thousands of years by the Suwannee cut through prehistoric limestone. At night, river dwellers sit around campfires on the river’s sandy shores, complaining about motorboats scarring the backs of endangered prehistoric manatee. Or they tell stories of lost divers drowning in the twisted, turning underwater caves, stretching miles beneath the earth — cavers running out of air, stabbing each other with dive knives to steal a last breath from their partner’s tanks. Tales of corpses wrapped in tangled guidelines, entombed like mummies, arms tightly pinned against their stiff bodies. Stories of bodies so bloated that rescue teams have to pry them out of narrow passageways. And of goodbye messages hastily carved in limestone walls during final dying breaths.
One night I sat around a campfire listening to the harrowing tales, watching campfire shadows dance like ghosts against the white Florida sand, trying to ignore my thudding heart and the chills that lifted the hair on the back of my neck. That’s when it hit me: “I have to write about this.” I started to read or re-read all of my favorite Southern novelists among them Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Pat Conroy, John Hart, Flannery O’Connor, Fannie Flagg, James Lee Burke, and Zora Neal Hurston.
I researched cave diving and actual cases of divers drowning in the caves. I listened and watched the people and customs of locals with the ardor of an anthropologist (Margaret Mead would be pleased). I read the history of the area, including a 1948 novel, SERAPH ON THE SUWANNEE by famed novelist Zora Neal Hurston. I frequently kayaked the Suwannee, tubed down Itchtuknee Springs, and listened to locals’ tales about the history of the area. I read books about the Florida laws and dangers of underwater cave diving, conducted Internet research, and interviewed local expert dive outfitters about the technical aspects of their underwater treks.
Influenced by my favorite Southern writers, I used many traditional “noir” themes in my debut novel LIMESTONE GUMPTION: A BRAD POPE AND SISTERFRIENDS MYSTERY. My protagonist is 35-year-old psychologist and reluctant sleuth, Dr. Brad Pope, who finds himself accused of a murder he must solve to save himself. When the police drop the ball, he outsmarts the cops by relying on his own psychological wits and instincts as he unravels a tangle of murder and intrigue. He confronts his tortured, dysfunctional past and a finger-wagging grandmother who heads a sinister garden club – six quirky women of a certain age who at first glance look like sweet little church ladies. Upon Pope’s closer investigation, however, they appear to be cold-blooded murderers. Glued together because of a sinister secret, the women are not exactly sisters but are more than friends, hence “Sisterfriends.” Their biggest claim to fame is the garden they tend under the welcome sign on the outskirts of town, where passersby wonder what they planted there.
Striking a balance between the beauty and brutality of small-town Southern life without idealizing it, yet without vilifying it, was a challenge: the mixed messages of the townspeople, macabre ironic events, religious zeal fraught with dysfunctional relationships, and a penchant for exotic homemade foods. Writing the novel required suspension of judgment and a bird’s-eye view to show the Tao as it exists in nature. There are many truths to be mined in the darkness of the South, few strictly good or bad. Truth contains elements of both, and all of us, writers and readers alike, are stuck with that paradoxical mix for life.
—Bryan Robinson, October 10, 2016