” The police chief didn’t like the Star‘s asking why Hillston should have doubled the size of its police department and yet still be unable even to identify the bodies of homicide victims. He didn’t like being asked why in a national survey the Hillston Police Department should be ranked No.1 in small cities in the Southeast when, instead of catching maniacs who sawed open young women’s throats, it spent its time arresting innocent leading citizens of the community for murder—a reference to the Norris trial . . . ” (Part One, 1, p.15)
First Lady is a “Justin and Cuddy” novel, a murder crime series revolving Hillston, North Carolina, of which Cuddy Mangnum is the chief of police, and his best friend, echt aristocratic southerner, Justin B. Savile V, is the homicide chief. Chief Cuddy boasts that “there will be no unsolved homicides in Hillston as long as I’m head of H.P.D.,” yet the novel begins with a disturbing, direct challenge to him: the unearthing of a grotesquely mutilated female corpse, complete with hand-scribbled toe tag instructing Justin to deliver the body to his superior. Despite the unknown identity of the body, one thing is for sure—the killer is challenging the police.
G.W.’s scared but he’s also aroused. Murder’s a high for him. He likes it. He remembers the feeling, he watches, he waits. My bet is, he goes back to the G.I. Jane scene between the murder when you found her. Checks her out, fiddles with things, ‘improves’ them. He’s a perfectionist, . . . a neat freak. (Part Two, 18, p.229)
The reputation of the police department is overshadowed by a high-profile trial of a math professor, a social scion, Tyler Norris, for murder of his pregnant wife. Despite the judge’s obvious belief in his guilt, his community is on his back. Mounting bad press, accusing the police of injustice puts pressure on Chief Cuddy. Several more murders, all highly ritualized, incite media frenzy over the “Guess Who Killer” stalking Hillston’s women. This killer is leaving taunting clues in Cuddy’s office, around the courthouse, and even on the next few bodies, one of whom, most intriguingly, is thought to be Mavis Mahar, the rock star on tour in town. The body belongs to her fans, Lucy Griggs, who was barely covered by Governor Andy Brookside’s raincoat. So early on the novel the homicide gives the impression of a political vendetta against the governor in an effort to derail his re-election bid.
Despite a slightly slow start in which Malone indulges in name-dropping, First Lady is a tight-knit novel, a blend of crime fiction and literature. Justin and Cuddy is under time’s pressure to solve the crimes. But it’s through Justin’s perspective that the ultimate connections, and thus murderous motive, are revealed. Sitting alongside the hunt for the serial killer’s identity is a panoramic vision of the South and its changing demographics. This is exactly Malone’s real interest—the interplay of human conditions and competing forces in Hillston, as these diverse characters cope with the world they inhabit. Malone has created a cleverly-constructed plot lines and executes them well while employing a masterful prose style. The use of Justin and Cuddy duo allows for an element of humor that percolates through the tension with their uniquely Southern banter. Such banter is believable and authentic because they are best friends.
430 pp. Sourcebooks. Paper. [Read|Skim|Loss] [Buy|Borrow]