Written by Tom Bouman — Henry Farrell is the lone policeman who patrols the back roads of Wild Thyme township in rural northeastern Pennsylvania. Mostly his job isn’t too demanding. He can park his vehicle and spend some time enjoying the local lakes and forests without anyone much missing him. He can even take on an illegal after-hours job. He helps dismantle old barns and salvage the timber for new barns designed by his best friend, wordworking genius Ed Brennan. In Bouman’s fine descriptions of Henry’s world, you can just about smell the trees and ponds along with Henry himself as he narrates this police procedural.
These bucolic images coexist uneasily alongside the dirty business of hydraulic fracking and the even dirtier practice of drug dealing, which are ravaging the natural and human resources of Wild Thyme. As a result, law enforcement in the township is about to face some serious challenges. (In the United States, states are divided into counties and counties into townships. Townships are unincorporated, with an average area of 36 square miles, and may include one or more small towns.) At first, it’s an uptick in burglaries and motor vehicle accidents, which Henry attributes to the rise in drug abuse.
But then a young woman goes missing. Penny Pellings is a sometimes heroin user who lives in a trailer with her boyfriend. The pair of them have lost custody of their infant daughter and want her back, but don’t appear to be on a road that will make that happen.
The search for Penny Pellings requires the casting of a rather wide net, which takes Henry out of his jurisdiction. He has a thoughtful, amiable demeanor that helps him interact well with his local county sheriff’s office, the Pennsylvania state police, and, across the state border in New York, the sheriff’s department of Tioga County and police from the closest big city, Binghamton. All these departments have many more resources than Henry does in Wild Thyme, and their officers extend what help they can to him in tracking down her friends and drug contacts – even after he inadvertently steps into the middle of a Binghamton undercover operation. So many crime novels focus on the turf battles and stonewalling between police agencies, it’s refreshing to see some real cooperation.
Interdepartmental sharing is more a necessity than a courtesy when a body turns up in Tioga County. The dead man may have been Penny’s dealer. Her boyfriend Kevin, who’d been trying to get her to quit taking drugs, may have shot the man… or not. But sorting all this out is made more difficult because it seems everyone knows everyone in this remote area. Everyone is connected somehow. And everyone has something to hide. While this strong web of associations makes for an interesting and intricate story, this book would benefit from having a character list to refer to. There are dozens of them, and since some appear only sporadically, it’s easy to lose track.
Henry’s police work isn’t the only strong element in his life. He was widowed a few years back and cannot quite persuade himself to let go of the past. Though he’s carrying on an affair with a married woman, that’s probably because she is ultimately unavailable. The possibility that her husband may find out about their relationship is naturally a source of low-level anxiety. On the positive side, Henry plays his fiddle as an escape valve, and he, his friend Ed the builder, and Ed’s wife Liz have a roots music trio that is gaining in local popularity. In Henry and several other principal characters, Bouman has created well-rounded, complex individuals.
Investigating Penny’s fate is an almost geological endeavor. Each layer excavated reveals another, with its own mysteries. In the end, the resolution of her story seems almost secondary to the 360-degree picture of the community of Wild Thyme that the author has created.
Bouman won an Edgar Award in 2015 for his first novel, Dry Bones in the Valley, also featuring Henry Farrell. Bouman’s brand of rural noir is increasingly popular, and, if you like it, you can literally get-out-of-town with some of these other standouts of the genre: Brian Panowich’s Bull Mountain, Frank Wheeler’s The Good Life, Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana, Wiley Cash’s This Dark Road to Mercy, or CJ Box’s Wyoming novels about game warden Joe Pickett (such as the recent Vicious Circle).
Faber and Faber
CFL Rating: 4 Stars