The pity of it is that, by refusing to link the cases, the city heartlessly deprives the victims of the only comfort and dignity left to them — their kinship as women. “Having lain there, sisterly, so close, for so long, the women bristle at the absurdity.”
It’s such a cheat to throw suspicion on the clearly blameless protagonist of your story, yet writers do it all the time. Even a pro like Julia Spencer-Fleming, whose mysteries featuring Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are such a pleasure, resorts to that narrative device. In HID FROM OUR EYES (Minotaur, 339 pp., $27.99), Van Alstyne, now the police chief of the rugged Adirondacks town of Millers Kill, came under suspicion in 1972, when a dead woman in a white lace minidress turned up in the middle of Route 137. Now, another victim — “pretty, young, all dressed up, with no shoes or pantyhose” — brings back this lawman’s memories of what it’s like to be innocent but unable to prove it.
Because Millers Kill is a small town, the mystery unfolds like a classic country whodunit, complete with lurid back stories for all the righteous grown-ups. And because Van Alstyne is married to an Episcopal priest who is expecting their first child, the human elements cushion the scenes of violence. Tough, but kind of sweet, if you know what I mean.
Once you’ve seen a strand of trees choked by the relentless kudzu vines that grow wild in the South, you can imagine what it must feel like to be strangled by a python. In BLACKWOOD (Little, Brown, 293 pp., $27), Michael Farris Smith uses the rampant growth of kudzu as a metaphor for the generational secrets and sins that in 1975 are suffocating the Mississippi hill of Red Bluff. But when a stranger who has driven into Red Bluff in a decrepit Cadillac with a woman and a boy (and minus the baby in a diaper they abandoned at a charity donation center) peers under a canopy of kudzu, he sees safety.
Red Bluff also offers shelter to Colburn Evans, an “industrial sculptor” who works with found objects, attracted by the free storefront space given to artists for studios. Once Colburn connects with Celia, who owns the local bar, and the family of vagrants gets the town all riled up, the stage is set for a Southern Gothic tale that is filled with pain and passion and something darker, something evil that leads Colburn down into a hidden cave and face to face with his own worst nightmare.