Despite the “North” in North Carolina, the state that sits to the south of Virginia and to the north of South Carolina (are you with me?) has always been part of the South. But one region, at least, has taken on a cosmopolitan flavor that could just as easily be found in New York, or California, or anywhere people of diverse backgrounds are coming together to create the future.
The Triangle region of North Carolina (Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill) is not the South your grandmother knew. It is the home to internationally known universities, such as Duke and the University of North Carolina. IBM and other high-tech companies have major divisions here. It has urgency and creativity you won’t find under a magnolia tree. It is here, in Chapel Hill, that the protagonist of “Thirteen Diamonds” and “Catch a Falling Knife,” Lillian Morgan, lives in the Silver Acres Retirement Community, where the residents are anything but retiring.
Lillian, a retired professor of mathematics who taught at Duke University (Durham) doesn’t say you-all, or Aisle for Al (like the girl from Georgia I dated one summer—but that’s another story) because she came here from somewhere else. So did many of the residents of Silver Acres; so did many of the residents and students in the Triangle.
Lillian exemplifies the spirit of the Triangle because she believes in personal freedom and personal responsibility. When a resident of Silver Acres dies, Lillian asks questions when others don’t and seeks a murderer when others say “natural causes.” When her granddaughter’s boyfriend is accused of sexual harassment while teaching at a small college, she fights a policy designed to end his career.
By coincidence, my mother lives in a retirement community in Chapel Hill that has residents from all over the country (and who have lived all over the world). She is an activist who started a chapter of the League of Women Voters in another place and another century. When people ask her whether she is Lillian she says no. She taught English and history, not math. Oh, and she doesn’t do the bad things Lillian sometimes does, like break into people’s apartments—and go to strip clubs.
Lillian’s son owns a 40-acre farm in Chapel Hill that grows pine trees, daffodils, forsythia and deer. Four generations of her family often meet there for Sunday brunch. Again by coincidence, my brother and sister-in-law own a farm in Chapel Hill. They often invite whatever relatives are available for Sunday brunch and exhibit the hospitality of the old South. Thus the old South and the new South come together.
My wife and I fly to North Carolina from our California home as often as we can get away. Most if not all the members of my family—East-Coasters all—congregate at the farm for Thanksgiving. I stay with my mother for a week at a time—glad that she’s in a place where even the coldest winter days are warmer than many she endured before she moved here from the North; glad that she has good friends and that she is well taken care of; glad that members of my family live close by.
So North Carolina, my home away from home, seemed like a good place in which to set the Lillian Morgan mysteries. And I can always say that I need to go there to do background research as an additional excuse to return again and again.