Poisoned Ground

  • Sandra Parshall
  • Poisoned Pen Press
  • 250 pp.

Big money and murder come to rural Virginia in Sandra Parshall’s latest mystery.

The promise of big money pits neighbor against neighbor when a powerful development company comes to Mason County, Va., to buy up land and build a resort. Then a respected couple is gunned down on the family farm they refused to sell. Anger, confusion, and violence roil the rural community, making it difficult for Sheriff Tom Bridger to keep order, let alone find the killer, in Sandra Parshall’s Poisoned Ground.

Bridger’s wife, veterinarian Rachel Goddard, doesn’t make his life easier, since she is vocal in her support for the locals unwilling to sell. His other challenges include civil unrest, vandalism, and threats between neighbors, not to mention the baffling murders.

Was greed was the motive? Was the couple shot by their antagonistic neighbor, who wants the resort development to go through? Might it have been one of the three strange sisters who live nearby?

As it turns out, the roots of the crime twist deeper and into long-kept secrets, any of which might be motive for a double murder. The sheriff finds, to his surprise, that the couple grew marijuana on their farm. So, then, was it a drug deal gone bad? The children of the murdered couple come to bury their parents and start a bitter and public argument. Did one of them kill their parents?

Then someone who does want to sell is also murdered. Has the bucolic county dissolved into civil war? In Poisoned Ground, Parshall cranks up the tension as the story drives forward through a twisted series of revelations.

Parshall’s work combines features of several mystery genres. Her sleuth Rachel Goddard is a modern version of the independent-minded women who solve the mysteries in classic “cozies.” Such characters are typically well-educated and have jobs that bring them into frequent contact with others in the community; Rachel is a veterinarian, who would be expected to have a contact on the police force; plus, she is married to the sheriff. 

However, cozies are often populated with eccentric or comic characters, and Parshall’s work is not. Her characters are vividly drawn and clearly recognizable as real human beings, with serious thoughts and complex concerns. She also brings into play the fascinating psychological probing characteristic of dark mysteries, as well as the larger issues typical of thrillers. In Poisoned Ground, residents of fictitious Mason County face a complex question that many in Appalachia do today: should they let a large developer take over land their families may have owned for generations, in exchange for what might be greater prosperity, but which might in fact be less-than-subsistence level jobs? Conflict over such issues has degenerated into violence more than once.

Parshall flavors her storytelling with long-running social issues; for example, several of her characters, including Sheriff Bridger, are identified as melungeon, a multiracial group of mysterious origin living in the mountains of Virginia and Tennessee. (Their ancestry is the subject of recent DNA research.)

Poisoned Ground is the sixth of Sandra Parshall’s Rachel Goddard mysteries, the first of which won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her central characters keep growing and changing, and Mason County’s complexity keeps building, even as she maintains the tension and unpredictability of her plots. An engaging read for Rachel Goddard fans, Poisoned Ground is also fertile ground for the growing number of new devotees.

Susan Storer Clark is a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books. She is a former radio and television journalist. Since retiring from the federal government, she has completed her first novel, set in the urban turbulence of 19th-century America, and is at work on her second, the fictionalized life of a slave captured by Francis Drake in 1580. Ms. Clark has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years. She and her husband, Rich, recently moved from the Washington, DC, area to Seattle, where they are renovating an old farmhouse.

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