Dark Passages: Crimes grow in rich Appalachian soil

My newest column for the Los Angeles Times travels through the Appalachian region, looking specifically at recent novels published by Sharyn McCrumb and Vicki Lane. Here’s now the piece opens:

Say the word “Appalachia” in some variant or another and the probability is pretty high that someone will come back with a humorous remark — or one he or she thinks is funny, but isn’t. It’s a region that stretches as far north as the state of New York and as far south as the mid-point of Mississippi, with more than 23 million strong living within boundaries that first began to be recognized as a distinct entity in the 19th century. And yet, the snickers emitted when South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford claimed, in 2009, that he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” — rather than own up to an extramarital affair — had as much to do with the culturally backward connotations of his excuse as the scandal itself.

It’s easier to make fun of something one doesn’t understand, and Appalachia’s mix of strong religious ties, farming, crop cultivation and Cherokee Indian folklore produces a brew that might be even more potent than the moonshine the region was long famous for. As a result, the crime fiction that originates from Appalachia teems with pungent smells and sounds and is steeped in the roots of generations of families — and, of course, in blood, especially of past sins coming due in the present….

Read on for the rest.