Bev Marshall, . . MacAdam/Cage, $25 (296pp) ISBN 978-1-931561-05-1

The arrival of a battered girl disrupts life on a Mississippi dairy farm during WWII in Marshall's debut, an effective if somewhat overwritten story of a lurid smalltown crime. Sheila Carruth is the young girl who is rescued from her abusive father when Lloyd Cotton offers her a place to live and hires her to clean up after his cows. The skinny, humpbacked girl quickly masters the work and wins over Cotton; his wife, Rowena; and their prepubescent daughter, Annette, with her sunny disposition. Romance follows when she attracts the attention of a farmhand named Stoney Barnes. Their unlikely love affair leads to a wedding and a difficult pregnancy, but real trouble surfaces when Stoney starts beating Sheila, and Stoney's brutal father and brother begin paying the couple threatening visits. The combustible mix of personalities finally explodes, and Sheila is found strangled to death in Cotton's cornfield, at which point local reporter Leland Graves steps in to narrate Stoney's trial. Marshall delivers fine character studies in her well-drawn portraits of Stoney, Sheila, Cotton and his family, and the tension is heightened by the strictures of mid-century morality. But the murder is described by so many different narrators that the story runs out of steam by the time Marshall finally gets to Stoney's version. Nevertheless, this is a solid debut. Agent, Lisa Bankoff. (Apr. 1)

Forecast:If properly marketed in the South, this novel could rack up strong regional sales, though it faces competition from a bevy of similar titles.