A Carolina courtroom whodunit
By Anne Blythe
If you spend much time in courthouses in North Carolina, you begin to see the complex fabric of their communities.
It might be one thread, one story, one case at a time but, eventually, the many threads are stitched together into a complex tapestry. Katherine Burnette, a district court judge from Oxford who rose to the bench as a former federal and state prosecutor, pulls back the curtain on small-town North Carolina and its dramas in her debut novel, Judge’s Waltz.
It may be fiction, but the storyline created by the attorney-turned-writer — while seemingly over the top at the start — is rooted in insider knowledge from someone who has been in and out of North Carolina courthouses for much of her career.
“Barely audible above the hum of the ancient air conditioner came the creak, creak, creak of the thick rope affixed to the brass chandelier,” writes Burnette in the opening of her mystery. “Swaying ten feet above the intricately carved, pre-Civil War bench, the Honorable Patrick Ryan O’Shea had adjourned to a higher court.”
We quickly find out that O’Shea was not universally revered, nor was he a jurist with great legal acumen. His knack was kissing up to a certain professor in his third year of law school and following suit with a wide swath of politicians who helped him get coveted judicial seats.
“Not noted for his weighty opinions from the bench, O’Shea had come to be noted for the weighty politicians who stood behind him and his bid for a higher court,” Burnette writes. “Apparently, these politicians had garnered their strength and their favors to foist O’Shea upon the unsuspecting Fourth Circuit court.”
O’Shea never got there. His last dance, so to speak, was hanging in a federal courtroom in the Eastern District of North Carolina in nothing more than his black robe. “The only thing that O’Shea could do — was doing — was a slow discordant waltz at the end of a long rope,” Burnette says in her prologue.
The pages of the novel are sprinkled with humor and wit as we meet Buck Davis, the folksy lawyer from Oxford who is tapped by the chief judge in the Eastern District to sort through O’Shea’s cases as Katie O’Connor, an FBI agent Davis remembers fondly from high school, leads the investigation into the judge’s death.
Burnette deftly describes the country roads between Granville County and Raleigh, where the judge’s chambers were. She takes readers into drugstores, restaurants, courthouses and other places that will seem familiar to anyone who has experienced the slower hum of Granville County or the bustling halls of power in the capital city.
You can almost smell the drugstore coffee brewing and taste the Southern food being dished up as the suspense builds over how and why Judge O’Shea found himself suspended from that ceiling. “Today’s courtroom deals were made in the few minutes it took to eat a sausage biscuit,” Burnette writes.
The cast of characters includes Jeb, Buck’s brother, who battles demons from opioid addiction; Walter A. Johnson, the Granville County detective who went to high school with Jeb; and Mary Frances Margaret O’Shea, the widow of the lifeless judge, who does not seem to grieve her loss at all.
Even the relatively minor characters who come and go throughout the mystery are memorable, like the waitress, Wanda, who saunters up to Buck and Katie in the Oak Room with a pencil behind her ear and her weight balanced “on one polyester-clad hip.” The Oxford restaurant is where Buck and Katie often end up as they develop not only their case but also a budding romance.
Wanda gives the couple a dose of reality about the menu choices. There is no wine list, Wanda informs Katie. The choice is strictly by color, red or white. And don’t ask for an exotic imported beer, either. Buck settles for a Miller High Life.
Burnette writes, “Wanda scribbled something on her pad and strolled away. ‘One red, one champagne,’ she hollered to the bartender, confusing Katie.
“‘I didn’t know they served champagne,’ Katie told Buck. ‘No,’ Buck explains. ‘She means the Miller. You know champagne of beers.’”
The mystery of what happened to Judge O’Shea twists and turns as Burnette teases her readers with different scenarios.
Was it suicide?
Was it murder?
At whose hand?
Katie, Johnson and Buck — with a big assist from Jeb — help pull together the many threads as Burnette takes her readers on a journey to the surprise ending of a novel not only worth picking up but difficult to put down.
The verdict is in. It’s a whodunit and a page-turner that belongs on a summer reading list. OH
Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades. She has covered city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.