Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman

2 Mins read

This debut novel introduces Henry Farrell, a policeman in Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania. Despite the name of the township, the job should have been a quiet life with plenty of hunting and fishing for a man who is old beyond his years. A widower and former soldier who served in a peacekeeping force in Somalia, Farrell is as weary as the veteran cops in the novels of James Lee Burke, yet he’s barely middle-aged. He’s a dedicated officer who lives quietly, while being secretly in love with his best friend’s wife, a medic who saved his life when he forgot to look after himself for a while.

Sometimes the three of them get together for a jam session on fiddle and banjo, at least until their lives are disturbed by the discovery of a body in the snow on land belonging to a reclusive old man who appears to be suffering from dementia. The body is missing an arm and Farrell witnesses a turkey vulture pluck an eyeball from the frozen corpse.

We’re not quite in noir territory but such episodes are typical of a dark tale in which the American Dream has turned sour. Meth cooks are encroaching into the region’s wooded seclusion, while the only people doing well and obeying the law seem to be those who agree to lease land to the fracking companies drilling for shale gas. Farrell has a hatred of this burgeoning industry, which has followed him across the country, and he resents the financial constraints on law enforcement. There are so many guns in this community obsessed with hunting, many of its taxpayers believe they can protect themselves.

There are also plenty of old enmities and scores to settle, which confuses Farrell’s investigation when more bodies turn up. One of the victims is close to home for the cop and provokes a vigilante response from a gang of drinking buddies. Another body goes back much further and is discovered in an unusual state of preservation in the swamp, a bit like the Iron Age bog bodies.

County sheriff Nicholas Dally provides some support, but Farrell is largely a lone wolf as he attempts to track the members of a local family implicated in these crimes and a drug dealer who’s wanted by the cops. Farrell runs into the woodland equivalent of a crack house, an old school bus now home to meth addicts, and he endures some sudden violent encounters that leave him wounded and psychologically frayed. But he’s not someone who gives up easily.

An uninterrupted first person narrative that maintains suspense and creates a cast of compelling characters is not an easy thing to pull off. Tom Bouman has largely succeeded in a debut that’s unusually accomplished, which explains the approving blurbs from fellow authors such as Wiley Cash. Perhaps it could do with a touch of humour, some snappier dialogue and shorter chapters, but then Bouman was clearly aiming to write a literary thriller rather than an explosive, page-turning blockbuster.

As well as beguiling you with descriptions of the stunning landscape of the Appalachian Mountains – and its grim secrets – Bouman’s slow-burning, shadowy story is also an intriguing introduction to this laconic yet likeable law enforcement officer. Hopefully we’ll see more of Henry Farrell in future novels from Tom Bouman.

If you like the sound of this, you might also enjoy Natchez Burning by Greg Iles.

Faber & Faber

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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