Dry Bones in the Valley
Faber & Faber
Pub Date: Apr 2 2015
“I didn’t trust my eyes. Since Alan had whacked me on the head, my relationship to light had changed. Sometimes I saw too much and it felt like seeing my own pain. Other times, what should have been plain before me was shrounded and confused”
Every now and again a thriller comes along that reminds you just how good the genre can be. This impressive first novel from Tom Bouman is a case in point blending as it does a kind of rural noir with murder mystery.
When a young man’s body is found on old recluse Aub Dunigan’s property, closely followed by another seemingly unrelated murder close by, Henry Farrell, a local policeman in Wild Thyme Township, a small town in rural Pennsylvania, has to call in the state police and the local sheriff to help him piece together what happened.
Henry’s a local boy. He likes to fish, hunt deer, and play bluegrass, whilst gently flirting with the wife of his best friend. He grew up with his main suspects. He may not like them all, nor they he, but he doesn’t believe most of them are potential killers. He particularly doesn’t see Aub as a killer, even when an old grave is the discovered on Aub’s land. But is he right?
What makes this book stand out is the quality of the prose. I was reminded of Daniel Woodrell, Cormac McCarthy and strangely Peter Høeg as I read this novel. With some books, especially thrillers, there can be a temptation to skip descriptive passages and just stick with the dialogue, but not here. The world Bouman has created in his Pennsylvania small town – against the backdrop of the encroachment of fracking interests – is a real and believable one. “There were more trailers, and trailers sprouting extra rooms made of garden sheds and fifth wheels, and at the lowest end of the spectrum, dwellings that seemed at once to rot into the land and to be propped up by it, structures with open wounds leaking pink insulation, homes that seemed to draw no definite line between indoors and out”
It presents an almost inevitability about fracking, with families that have long since lost any income from other means accepting the payments from big gas concerns for access to their land. Even Henry who plans to hold out knows he fighting against the tide. And he has extra reason to be suspicious of the frackers. He had moved away from Wild Thyme, and lived in Wyoming until his wife had died from a number of health problems he suspects were related to fracking. But the town is in an area where there are huge shale pockets, the so called Marcellus Shale, found throughout the Allegheny Plateau region of the northern Appalachian Basin of North America.
Yes, there are murders to resolve (which the book does) but these almost become secondary to the picture of rural life Bouman is painting. “Clouds had rolled in and the dark was the kind it’s hard to argue with”. This is a town where the land used to be worked and things were produced. These days the only things produced are shale gas and drugs. It’s a world of ongoing struggles against poverty, of a world that has changed and has seemed to have taken their living with it. But is also a place of secrets and grudges and old family feuds, and these may lay at the heart of the killings. It feels real: when one character, Alan Stiobhard, poses the question, “When did you ever fight someone who didn’t matter to you?” to Henry, you find yourself nodding in agreement at this simple wisdom. At times it made me think of rural conflicts of Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens novels, but whilst both Givens and Farrell are law men with military backgrounds, Bouman’s Farrell is a much more quiet and non-confrontational character.
It’s odd that whilst the pacing of the novel seems somewhat sedate at times the story never drags and as a reader you never bore. It’s amusing that Farrell at one point thinks back to something his fiddle teacher said about the “the virtue of slowness.” It is something the author has heeded well. Your attention is held throughout and you want a resolution. What you don’t necessarily end wanting, is this to be the first in a series of Henry Farrell books, and again I think Bouman should be commended for this. It reads like it is supposed to be self contained and not as an ‘introduction’ to a central character.
This will no doubt be described in some quarters as a ‘literary thriller’ . It’s a term that is occasionally bandied around, and is one that I’ve come to dislike more and more over the years (although maybe my rural noir at the start is just as bad?). This is because it immediately denigrates an entire genre – the thriller, all but saying that it is a novelty if one is well written. Or worse still, that it is some lesser form of fiction writing. It’s not. This book proves it.
Destined to be one of the books of 2015. Tom Bouman is one not only to watch, but also to read.
Review copy provided by Faber Books / Netgalley