Seeing a sheriff’s real challenges through fiction

Just what does a North Carolina sheriff do these days?

Retired District Court Judge Stanley Peele, writing about Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood, says that the concept of law enforcement officers has changed from “authority, power and prestige” to one of problem solving.

Peele quotes Sheriff Blackwood, “When people are in distress, when they have gone sideways, they look to the police to solve their problems. Police are people and people are police.”

Blackwood recently explained to me his efforts to encourage his deputies and other staff to emphasize their service responsibility and to avoid being heavy handed when it was not absolutely necessary. Being peacemakers is as much a part of the job as being peacekeepers, he said.

Sheriffs have extraordinary authority and responsibility to enforce the law and to take practical measures to solve the various sets of human problems that challenge the goal of having a peaceful community.

Judge Peele’s tribute to Sheriff Blackwood reminded me that several North Carolina fiction writers have recently made sheriffs or deputies central characters in their novels.

In her 20-book series featuring Judge Deborah Knott, Margaret Maron has given her readers an inside look at the North Carolina justice system. Her latest, “Long Upon the Land,” is also, she says, the last of this series. One reason this is bad news is that we will no longer be able to follow the crime-solving and human relations skills of Judge Knott’s new husband, Dwight Bryant, chief deputy in a fictional North Carolina County that could be Johnston or Harnett. “Long Upon the Land,” Maron’s murder mystery, has multiple suspects, including several men in Judge Knott’s family. Bryant handles each suspect firmly but respectfully, finally winning a confession by asking questions based on facts uncovered and logical deductions from those facts.

Bryant would be a good fit on Sheriff Blackwood’s team.

In her new book, “Speaking in Bones,” Kathy Reichs, author of 17 New York Times best-selling books featuring crime-solving anthropologist Tempe Brennan, introduces us to Zeb Ramsey, a fictional Avery County sheriff’s deputy.

Brennan operates out of the medical examiner’s office in Mecklenburg County, where she analyzes the broken flesh and bones of crime victims and others to find answers that solve the toughest cases. But, without the help of Deputy Ramsey, she would not be able to solve a gruesome murder in which the victim’s body parts have been dumped into the wilderness from a remote mountain overlook. Ramsey’s knowledge of his community and common sense make the difference.

As I wrote in a recent column, Ron Rash’s new book, “Above the Waterfall,” introduces us to a soon-to-be retiring mountain sheriff who could be the model law enforcement official Sheriff Blackwood describes except for one failing. He takes regular small payments from marijuana growers. That moral weakness would definitely keep him off Blackwood’s team.

A few years ago Wiley Cash’s debut novel, “A Land More Kind than Home,” introduced us to another mountain sheriff, Clem Barefield, who worked hard to gain the confidence of the mountain people in Madison County. Barefield showed courage and kindness even as he confronted a villain, more evil than I could imagine: Pastor Carson Chambliss, a handler of snakes and a manipulator of people, who seemed willing to do anything, including killing anybody who got in his way. In the novel’s bloody conclusion, Sheriff Barfield faced him down.

The descriptions of the work and character of these fictional sheriffs by these four important North Carolina authors open the door for their readers to better understand and appreciate the challenges faced by Sheriff Blackwood and the sheriffs in our 99 other counties.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.