Mrs. Alberta Resnick’s crunchy peanut butter and banana sandwich is the perfect entrée into Deb Richardson-Moore’s delicious mystery The Cantaloupe Thief. Resnick is dead after only one bite, of course, and the case goes cold for ten years. But when our hero Branigan Powers sets out to write a news feature for the local paper on the anniversary of the sleepy Georgia town’s most famous murder, her questions jangle nerves in all quarters. While Mrs. Resnick’s children and grands reluctantly play along with Branigan’s interviews, they naturally don’t enjoy being reminded of that calamitous July 5th afternoon when their matriarch was felled by a steak knife. The only daughter wears a fishy façade; the youngest son keeps looking over his shoulder. But their stories match up with the yellowed police record and the collective memories of the likeable locals.
Branigan discovers nothing out of place—until homeless people start getting run over on nocturnal, abandoned streets. And these people may have had some connection, however vague, to Mrs. Resnick’s unfortunate demise. A transient, after all, secretly squatting in Mrs. Resnick’s overgrown pool house was a suspect according to the ancient police report; but his alibi thoroughly checked out. Branigan thinks these unfortunate hit and runs suggest somebody knows something the police didn’t investigate a decade ago. It’s her only hunch, and she trusts her instinct long before she ever understands it. That’s one reason we root for and love this curious reporter.
The idealistic Branigan will learn the homeless in her town are practically invisible, and, as a population, have no voice. Did such an invisible person see or do something at the crime scene that flew under the radar? Homeless neighbors at the mission were interviewed in the days after the crime, but possibly clammed up, or, more likely, were never taken seriously. Branigan sets out to listen again, to really listen. And, earning their trust, she can hardly take notes fast enough. Which is another reason we love Branigan; though it sounds like a gumshoe cliché, she’s got heart.
An adopted teen whose homeless biological father drifts into his life, a mission pastor close to the streets, Branigan’s tightly knit family and lost brother, an amiable convention of psychics, a crusty editor named Tan4 lamenting the death of the newspaper industry not to mention his richest subscriber and distant cousin, and improbable new friendships with society’s castoffs living beneath the Garner Memorial Bridge conspire to spin this story—layer after layer—vividly to life.
Richardson-Moore writes with authority about things she knows and cares about. She writes cleanly and well. You can tell she was an award winning feature and news writer; there’s no fluff in these tightly crafted chapters, and, though this is a story with feeling, it is pablum-free. Wisely, she lets this layered story speak for itself.
You can also tell Richardson-Moore is the real-life mission pastor who, as a force of nature, helped keep her beloved Triune Mercy Center on the outskirts of downtown Greenville, SC, from closing a decade ago. The invisible homeless she writes about in this story are not invisible to her. She knows their names, just as Branigan comes to know them. And while Richardson-Moore as both mystery writer and street-smart pastor doesn’t pretend to understand all the threads that make up her parishioners’ complicated tangle, she doesn’t presume, pontificate, or attempt to tie up life on the streets into some unlikely or politically correct neat bow. Life on her pages—like in her mission church—is messy. For the reader, that’s a gift. We get to know the likes of Malachi, Rita Mae, and the shadowy Demetrius. Always darkening the faces of these complex characters is the capriciousness of mental illness, the wear and tear of living in the elements, and the hungering need for the next fix. Richardson-Moore makes the ever-present pangs and compulsions of addiction ring like Coltrane.
It helps immeasurably that Richardson-Moore has covered a reporter’s beat and knows firsthand the underbelly of the New South she obviously loves. This authenticity is a boon for the Branigan Powers Mystery Series. Grambling, once a sleepy, Georgia mill town near the South Carolina line, is finding new prosperity after the 1980s exodus of the textile industry that once was king. The New South is clashing with Old Dixie. It’s a minefield, writes Richardson-Moore, where manners and mores and southern charm as sweet as sun-brewed iced tea often clash.
That’s not all that clashes. Branigan has an increasingly difficult time jibing her comfortable life of weekend beach trips, Friday night daiquiris, and wall to wall carpet at the family farmhouse with the lives of people she is getting to know at the grocery-store-turned-mission. While her job took her to the vibrant Jericho Road Mission Church, we know that matters of heart and conscious will keep her connected.
Branigan will come to know the petty crime and wrenching shame homelessness spawns: vagrancy, loitering, trespassing, urinating in public. Being homeless wasn’t illegal, Richardson-Moore writes, but being human and doing human things outside was. This is one of the heartbreaks the idealistic reporter will discover, which is yet another reason we love Branigan: she doesn’t stick her head in the sand no matter how painful—and sometimes personal—the truth she discovers is.
She will likewise notice for the first time the backpack toters dozing on the sunny benches at the park or crowding the computers at the library scoring free internet. These aren’t college kids writing reports or an otherwise curious populace; they are the marginalized just trying to get by. It is their lives they carry on their backs. As exquisitely as they know how, these denizens are just trying to stay alive on the side streets, cat holes, tent villages, and mission church only steps away from the groomed storefronts on First and Main. New South or Old, this is the American South that native Branigan Powers is seeing for the first time.
And this is the world she will change.
The Cantaloupe Thief
A Branigan Powers Mystery
by Deb Richardson-Moore
In bookstores now!
Review by Matt Matthews
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...