To Live and Die in Dixie – Theodore Roscoe (1961)

If any Golden Age author can tell a story, it’s Theodore Roscoe.  Yes, I take great comfort in the prose of the likes of John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Henry Wade, Anthony Berkeley, Herbert Brean, Rupert Penny, or Norman Berrow.  And Christianna Brand… well, she’s just sublime.  But Theodore Roscoe can paint with words in a way that I haven’t encountered with other authors.  I’d be fine reading a Roscoe book that doesn’t even feature any mystery – but, I mean, come on, give me a mystery…

Which takes me to this read – To Live and Die in Dixie.  Is it a mystery novel?  Roscoe wrote a breadth of pulp, ranging from tales of The Foreign Legion to jungle safaris and adventures of the United States Navy, so there isn’t a guarantee that anything you pick up by him is going to be a story of detection.  But I suppose it’s a silly question to pose in the case of To Live and Die in Dixie.  It’s right there on the cover: “A mystery novel by Theodore Roscoe”.  Why then can’t I find a single review of this book?  I mean, this is the guy who wrote Murder on the Way – a zombie laced impossible crime (published in 1935 no less) – which is easily one of the best entries the genre has to offer.

Theodore Roscoe has a few novels that seem to fit the mystery category, yet fly so far under the radar that they may as well not exist: Only in New England, Seven Men, and To Live and Die in Dixie.  I’ve had copies of Only in New England and To Live and Die in Dixie for a few years now, and decided to finally crack open the vault and give one a try.

The vibe of To Live and Die in Dixie is very much in the vein of Roscoe’s Four Corners mystery short stories (if you haven’t read these, drop everything and buy both collections immediately – best decision you’ll make all year).  It’s turn of the century small town USA captured vividly, although we shift from the Four Corners location of upstate New York to Virginia.  I’ll admit that the “Dixie” of the title had me expecting something a bit further south – say Mississippi – but the story is set in 1902 and the war between states is still fresh in people’s minds (a sixty year old would have been of fighting age forty years earlier).

To Live and Die in Dixie is divided into five parts.  There’s a prologue and epilogue dealing with a modern day (1960) reporter researching a sixty year old crime, but the majority of the book takes us back to the turn of the century to explore how the events unfolded.  It’s a bit of a gruesome murder – a wealthy woman scalded to death in a tub of boiling water – that rocks the small town of Amityburg, Virginia.  We experience the story through the eyes of the neighbors, with each household getting a chapter devoted to their perspective of the events surrounding the crime.  This is where Roscoe excels, building miniature stories within a dozen or so pages.  You get the essence of Amityburg through the eyes of the town pharmacist, a teenage girl, a German immigrant, a college professor, a grizzled war vet, and so on.  Each character is given a backstory that feels amazingly deep for the little time that they get on page, and in that you get a strong sense of both the present day and the history of the town.  If you enjoyed Roscoe’s Four Corners short stories, you’re going to feel at home here, as the vibe is much the same.

Once we get an understanding of how the crime played out, we move on to a section of the book titled “Detective Story”.  Despite the marquee, there isn’t really much in the way of detectives or investigation.  Instead we get a thrilling account of the townsfolk forming an out of control mob and nearly killing two unfortunate souls who were randomly deemed suspects.  There’s also a plot line involving a local reporter and his failings to get an accurate account of the riot published due to the potential for political fallout.

We’re at the 163 page mark of the 310 pages before detectives actually make their way into the story.  Don’t expect your standard sequence of interviews.  Instead it’s a quick blitz and the killer is in jail two dozen pages later.

This leads us to the final core section of the book, which focuses on the trial and provides a glimpse into what happens in these stories after a murderer is unmasked.  I’ll be lean on details, as that would get into who actually committed the crime.  Inquests and trials tend to be the less interesting parts of mystery novels in my experience, but Roscoe made this one fun.  Although the case has concluded and you know who committed the crime, you haven’t seen the actual evidence that led to the arrest, and as the prosecution plays their cards, it’s one twist after another.

To reach the 260 page mark, it would be fair to say that To Live and Die in Dixie isn’t so much of a mystery novel, but rather a rich examination of how a small Virginia town is upended by the murder of someone from the upper class, and the subsequent shockwave when the killer is unmasked.  That isn’t a criticism, as it’s damn good, but if you’re looking for the standard Golden Age detective mystery (granted this was written well into the waning sunset of the era), it’s going to feel light on the mystery.  But man, Roscoe can really capture a time and a place: the suffocating heat and humidity of the Virginia summer; the way that news spread by way of the milkman faster than the daily paper; the threat of the Klan and the vivid reality that life would never play out fair for those they victimized.

And yet, in this story that at times feels more like akin to To Kill a Mockingbird (a lazy reference, I know), Theodore Roscoe has hidden a really satisfying surprise.  It pains me that I can’t get into the details, but yeah, if you’re a fan of Golden Age detective fiction, you’re going to get a twist that’s better than most.  Roscoe delivers a set of fakes and jabs that verge on minor disappointment, before landing the true knockout.  In the event that you do end up reading this, I implore you to go back and read that chapter (you’d inevitably know which one to look for).  There are so many nuances to appreciate, and while there are some sections you can clearly skim over, make sure you read all the way through.  As much infamy is given to notorious lines from Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Carr’s Seeing is Believing, there deserves to be a similar reputation for one particular sentence in To Live and Die in Dixie.

To be clear, this isn’t some top 10 mystery novel, but I am riding a high after finishing it.  Roscoe’s writing is as good as it gets for the genre, and although he has better material (Murder on the Way, I Was the Kid With the Drum, Ghoul’s Paradise) it’s the type of story that I enjoyed getting lost in, even though 90% of it felt more like a murder novel than a mystery novel.  It’s the perfect lazy read, and at 310 pages (hardback), it read well in three installments.  The final third sure flew by.

It’s unfortunate that To Live and Die in Dixie seems to be lost to time.  In fact, it pains me.  Hopefully reading this post stirs someone’s interest, as there’s a lot to appreciate, and a solid (if unconventional) denouement.  It’s also has me looking forward to finally reading Only in New England, although I’ll probably save that for at least a year out.

To Live and Die in Dixie is somewhat easy to track down at the moment, at least in the US.  There’s only one edition, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, who also released the far inferior Heaven Knows Who by Christianna Brand (her only mediocre read that I’ve encountered).  As far as hardback’s go, the Scribner’s are finer specimen than others that I’ve owned, with excellent paper, binding, and printing.

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