Authors often ask “What if” when they have an idea for a plot. When C. Hope Clark first thought about a civil servant at the Department of Agriculture reporting an attempted bribe by a farmer, she must have asked “what’s the worst that can possibly happen?”
Carolina Slade (and you don’t call her “Carolina” unless you’re her mother) is a USDA official who plays by the rules. While others might have overlooked hog farmer Jesse Rawlings’ offer of a bribe in hopes he would never bring up the matter again, Slade tells her superiors. After that, the dust never settles.
C. Hope Clark’s protagonist in the dazzling debut mystery/thriller “Lowcountry Bribe,” is a Charleston County manager who coordinates federal loans and their repayment by farmers. When she leaves her desk, it’s to inspect a farm, not to carry a gun and catch bad guys. Yet, as a Cooperating Individual (CI) she has no choice but to help agents Wayne Largo and Eddie Childress prove Rawlings tried to bribe her.
The case is getting a lot of attention from Atlanta. Slade wonders why. Perhaps there’s more to the bribe than she knows, a greater level of fraud that might implicate her former boss who disappeared last year or a co-worker who shot himself in the office last week. Slade can’t even be sure Largo and Childress aren’t investigating her. A supposedly easy “Get Jesse to repeat what he said Friday” turns into a dangerous crash course in crisis management where the stakes are much higher than missed loan payment or a reprimand from the boss.
Some publishers would have categorized “Lowcountry Bribe” as a mystery/thriller/romance because the novel includes romantic elements as well as Slade’s feelings of approach/avoid, trust/distrust insofar as agent Largo and his motives are concerned. Regardless of the book’s official genre(s), the danger and intrigue Slade is drawn into are industrial strength, requiring a CI who is tough enough to view blood on an office wall as “O-positive primer,” savvy enough to think a like federal agent and experienced enough to apply humor and sarcasm to methods and practices that don’t measure up to her high standards.
Clark knows the territory. She lives in South Carolina, has a degree in agriculture, has worked with the USDA for 25 years, and is married to a former federal agent. This information appears on the novel’s back cover. By the time readers finish the novel and find out the worst that can possibly happen, they will have discovered that Clark also knows the territory of deftly plotted fiction, realistic dialogue and place settings, and how to tell a story that burns like a stiff drink with a touch of sugar.
Clark is now writing the next novel in the Carolina Slade Mystery Series. For readers who like great storytelling, that’s the best that can possibly happen.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the contemporary fantasy “Sarabande.”