|This was a very long piece, so I chose to comment on it's individual sections, and give an overall review.
The first, and biggest, problem that I encountered was that Mary Ruby tells us the details of how she accidently killed Jake Harris again, and again, and again, and once more for good measure.
It's restated too much in this initial chapter (one which should be as dynamic as possible). I, as the reader, witnessed the incident.
When Mary Ruby tells her mother, the events of that day are still fresh in my mind. Even though my memory has just been refreshed, several paragraphs later Mary Ruby is telling the sheriff the details of the incident.
It's understandable, logical, and completely realistic that Mary Ruby needed to tell these people these things. But remember that the world of stories is an abbreviated one. We as writers cannot possibly capture every nuance of our characters lives, as much as we might want to. If we did, the plot of the story would be bogged down and lost in minutae.
Chose to retell the events either to the sheriff or the mother. Do not have Mary Ruby repeat the story to both parties. Because as I'm reading, if I encounter information I'm already familiar with, the story grinds to a halt. It loses it's momentum forward and starts repeating itself.
For example, you can abbreviate the conversation with the sheriff by having her say something like:
"I told my story to the sheriff, but when I came to the part about leaving Jake Harris at the creek his eyes bulged open wide."
Then have the sheriff relay to both Mary Ruby and the audience the relevant development in the plot- the body is gone.
That would speed the plot up signifigantly.
The second suggestion I have for the first chapter is more one of taste. I think you should open the story with a different paragraph.
I particularly liked this one, as an opener:
"Cadie Mae was a quiet little girl who didn’t cause no trouble. She was sweet and gentle, not even hurtin’ a fly. That’s what I couldn’t understand is how this could happen to a girl like her. Her mamma said she’d seen Jake lurkin’ around the school but I ain’t never seen him. "
Right from the get go, it creates a sense of mystery that pulls the reader in, as they want to know what happened to Cadie Mae.
I can sum up my difficulty following chapter 2 in one word; pacing. In this chapter we learn 2 important revelations. 1) Mr. Harris is Mary Ruby's father. and 2) Lucille is dead, in the same way Cadie May died. Don't neglect building suspence in your novel. Suspense is probablly the most important ingredient to keep readers turning the page.
It seems as if you answer question before you even ask them. There's no time for me to formulate my own speculations, to wonder about the mystery, to want the questions answered.
Unless there's some imperitive need, withhold the conversation where Mary Ruby learns Mr. Harris is probablly her father. Build to that revelation a little. PErhaps set the scene by having Mary Ruby going to tell her mother that she's going to Granny's. But as she walks up, she over hears a segment of a conversation that intimates that perhaps her Papa wasn't her real papa. Let her wonder, and misunderstand. Then when the truth is revealed, it will mean something to the reader.
When you have two competeing revelations, they detract from one another, making each less important in and of itself.
I like the fact that Mary Ruby discovers Lucille's body. I think that should remain intact.
After reading chapter 1, I believed that I was reading a mystery about the missing body of Jake Harris and who is killing young girls in this little Alabama town. But it seems in this chapter that Jake Harris recieves only a cursory mention.
I would like to experience Mary Ruby's reaction to that more fully. Is she frightened that Jake Harris is going to come after her?
I would suggest using the disappearance of the body to create dramatic tension as Mary ruby is walking to Granny's. She's afraid, he could be anywhere, ect. I woul dalso use the environment to give physical evidence that the search party had been combing the area looking for Jake Harris. Isn't it likely that they would have found Lucille's body as they searched for Jake? Maybe they did... But let us know by the physical evidence that surrounds Mary Ruby as she walks.
By this point, it seems as if Mr. Harris being Mary Ruby's father has eclipsed the initial plot. I know more about the relationship between Mary Ruby's mother and Mr. Harris than I do about any of Mary Ruby's relationships with the murder victims, her mother, her Papa, or Jake Harris.
My natural response would be to stop reading. If this were a book, I'd probablly never finish it, because I felt like I'd been baited and switched.
The violent encounters with Mr. Harris and his outright threats of murder fail to impress now. He's threatened to kill them so many times, that I've become desensitized to it. Each successive explosion of temper from both Mary Ruby and Mr. Harris becomes less evocative each time it's used.
Use the violence sparingly, and again create some mystery. There is a place for subtelty in mystery writing.
This would be a good place to reveal that Mr. Harris was her father, since there is no other revelation in this chapter. But I urge you to consider why he is her father. You're the storyteller, and if you're crafting a plot twist I expect there to be a good reason for it. If it's there just to be there it complicates the story and takes time and attention away from what you're really trying to get across.
I understood how chapters 1-3 were a prelude to chapter 4. In many ways, Chapter 4 is the most enthralling chapter in this collection.
But what happened to Chapter 3? There was a build up to something, given the time alotted to Mary Ruby's feeling that someone was watching her.
Consider adding a similar incident to the one in chapter 4. One where Mary Ruby is chased by something she doesn't understand.
This book seems to be a colelction fo several plot devices, loosely connected by a common character; Mary Ruby. There's revelations with no build up, build up to things that don't happen, and a plot twist which may or may not be relevant to the storyline.
I think you should reconsider Mary Ruby's paternity. The story premise is intriguing enough to stand on it's own without shocking the audience.
You need to connect the strings in the story, and make sure you're telling one story. You have too many seperate storylines vying for attention. I do not, at this point, know what you're book is about.