Crime fans know all too well that the best murder mysteries are not just about whodunit but about purpose, people and place.
American author Tom Bouman’s atmospheric and disturbing thriller has all three in spades, each executed with such impressive mastery that it’s hard to believe Dry Bones in the Valley is his debut.
Bouman’s home is in north-eastern Pennsylvania where the once quiet valleys of the shale-rich Appalachian mountains have become victims of the hungry, land-guzzling, fracking industry.
And it is in the shadow of this landscape – overtaken by torn-up trees, access roads, colossal machines and the drone of drills – that a haunting tale of drugs, greed, desolation, old secrets and internecine war wends its dark and winding way.
When the death of his wife ‘let the black dog in,’ Somalia war veteran Henry Farrell left Wyoming and headed back to his home town of Wild Thyme in the mountain region of Pennsylvania.
Farrell had expected to spend his mornings hunting and fishing, his evenings playing old-time music. But instead, he has watched the dual encroachment of shale oil fracking companies and drug dealers bring money and trouble to the area.
The shale might have brought unknown wealth to the township but it has also led to dangerous discord so when an elderly recluse discovers a corpse on his land, Farrell, the town’s only cop, knows that this inquiry will be played out close to home .
It’s a town with secrets and feuds that go back generations through a line of predominantly Irish ancestry and when a second body is found, the hunt opens up old wounds and recalls old crimes which some people want to keep hidden.
Farrell will have to look deep into his own soul as he tracks down a ruthless killer…
Bouman’s edgy, absorbing story comes alive not just through his devastatingly real evocation of a town and community poisoned by fracking moguls and infested with drugs and despair, but also in the authentic minutiae of its everyday life and fractured relationships.
The history of Wild Thyme Township plays a major role in this simmering murder mystery, the deep-rooted feuds that have festered beneath its surface for generations exploding into the present, and its divisive land-selling pitching neighbour against neighbour.
Treading a path through this corrosive mix is Henry Farrell, a fiddle-playing, grieving cop who went back home seeking a quieter life and instead finds his peace shattered and his mettle tested.
Bouman writes with both insight and exquisite delicacy, his poetic evocation of wild beauty and serenity turned bad providing one of the lasting memories of a remarkable, original and intelligent debut.
(Faber, paperback, £7.99)