Written by Hank Early — Fresh off the presses and published independently by Crooked Lane Books, Hank Early’s debut looks perfect for readers who want a little Southern Gothic flavour and to discover a new voice in crime fiction at the same time.
Earl Marcus may have left Georgia and his father’s Church of the Holy Flame behind, but he can never outrun his strict upbringing. His father was a fundamentalist pastor, the kind for whom the Bible is a literal transcript of God’s will, and handling snakes and speaking in tongues are signs of faith and righteousness. Marcus Sr, and the church he founded, came to dominate Coulee County.
Young Earl never met his father’s expectations, and when he was bitten while handling a snake during a service, Marcus Sr took it as a sign that his son was full of sin. He was literally cast out of the church and his father’s house, and ended up being taken in by an elderly black lady who worked as a midwife, and whom Marcus knows as Granny.
Now, Marcus is a middle-aged private detective living in North Carolina. Life is hardly sweet. Work consists of little more than credit checks and cheating spouses, and Marcus is candid about his reliance on the bottle, but not a day goes by when he isn’t thankful that he escaped from Coulee County.
Of course, he is dragged back there when Sheriff Mary Hawkins writes to him with the news that Granny has cancer and doesn’t have long left. Hawkins also includes a photo of a man who looks very much like Marcus’ late father. The photo has a time stamp which suggests it was taken after the man’s supposed death.
Early makes sure to give us conflict quickly in the novel. Marcus is ambivalent about returning to Coulee County. He has a profound love for Granny, but an instinctual fear and hatred of the church he grew up in. He is also reluctant to investigate the sighting of his father. Memory of the man has a malign effect upon him, and he really wants to dismiss the photo as a case of mistaken identity or a fake. However, part of him wishes his father was still alive so that there can be a rapprochement between them. Marcus Sr never treated his son as an adult during their time together, and Early cleverly shows Marcus regressing to childlike behaviour when he returns to his father’s home community.
Mary Hawkins provides a romantic distraction for Marcus who, despite his instincts, finds himself staying around to investigate the sightings of his father. In doing so, he has to face his brother, Lester, who was always his father’s favourite and who now runs the church. The two boys fell out over a girl before Marcus left, and their relationship has never recovered. His investigation reveals divisions within the church as to what direction it should take after its founder’s death, and suggestions of young women going missing, one of whom is Lester’s daughter. Early provides plenty of suspects behind the mystery, ranging from Marcus’ father, through church aldermen to corrupt cops.
The crime aspect is competent, if a little slow-paced, but it isn’t one of the book’s strengths. While there is never any overt supernatural element to the story, the author does ramp up the community’s superstitions. This pays off in generating the kind of heady, claustrophobic atmosphere that is expected from Southern Gothic novels, though the ending drifts into melodrama.
The first person narration really allows us into Marcus’ head, and there is a strong thematic element to the novel including explorations of familial conflict, and individualism versus family and religious duty. Heaven’s Crooked Finger has plenty of promise as the start of a mystery series, and Marcus is a complex protagonist with real depth, but Early will need to strengthen the crime aspect for the series to take off.
Crooked Lane Books
CFL Rating: 3 Stars