|DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY
Tom Bouman (www.drybonesinthevalley.com)
Faber & Faber (www.faber.co.uk)
Henry Farrell is the law in the small northern Pennsylvania rural township of Wild Thyme. On a routine visit to Aub Dunigan, Henry finds a partially dismembered body on a remote part of the old man’s land. When the township’s bad boy, Danny Stiobhard (“Steward”), leads Henry to a second body, he becomes the prime suspect in both murders. But there is more going on here than meets the eye, and the residents of Wild Thyme seem to be shutting Henry out, keeping secrets to which outsiders should not be privy and, while Henry is the law, he is still very much an outsider.
The strength of Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley lies in the story’s central character and narrator, Henry Farrell. Henry is a veteran of the war in Somalia – having seen action in Mogadishu, or “the Mog”, as he refers to it – who has now settled in the small northern Pennsylvania township of Wild Thyme, as the township’s policeman. By his own admission a glorified patrolman, Henry is not equipped to deal with dead bodies or suspected murderers, so Bouman’s decision to place him in the novel’s central role is an interesting one. From the outset, he is a thoroughly down-to-earth narrator, a likeable guy to whom it is very easy to listen. What drives the story is Henry’s tenacity, his need to find out who this dead man is and how he died, as a way of bringing sanity and order back to his town.
The setting – a small township near the northern Pennsylvania border – is not your average small-town American setting. There’s something of a frontier feel to the place: these are people who want to be left to their own devices; they have no need of a police force, have no desire to pay taxes or accept the amenities that those taxes often pay for. They’re a half-step down from Survivalists, who maintain a healthy suspicion of the law, outsiders, and anyone else who isn’t part of the their small, closed community. This is offset somewhat by the dual encroachment of drug dealers in the nearby towns, and of fracking companies, who are buying leases across the township and beyond.
As Henry’s investigation progresses – a slow and difficult process, given how difficult it is to find people and get them to answer questions – he begins to see the town and its residents in a new light. He is also convinced that both suspects – Dunigan and Stiobhard – are innocent of the crimes, which is in direct conflict with the thoughts of the county sheriff, who is running the investigation. Henry’s history – his tour in Mogadishu, and a more recent run-in with a fracking company in the Midwest – play a major part in who he is, and how he conducts his investigation, and the unconventional manner in which he proceeds – often at odds with the sheriff or the state police – is what sets his story apart from the average small-town American crime novel.
It is difficult not to like Henry from the outset, and even more difficult to find someone else with whom to compare him. Despite the troubles of his past, he is a personable, friendly, chatty companion for the reader, often digressing or going off on tangents as the narrative progresses, talking about everything from how to hunt deer, to the best way to behead chickens, the subject sparked by something he has found while searching a house, or talking to a witness. He drinks a bit (though on both occasions where he pours himself a scotch, it gets poured back into the bottle almost untouched), hunts deer and plays the fiddle, a man who seems, at first glance, unusual police officer material, but whose sharp mind and ability to talk make him the ideal candidate for the job.
There are echoes of William Gay in Bouman’s writing, even with the northern setting, and the central premise has the feel of Longmire about it. Despite the light tone, and the friendliness of Henry Farrell, there is a hard edge to Dry Bones in the Valley, a tension that oozes from the pages to the point where it feels like Henry is putting on an act to put us at ease as we navigate the almost incestuous relationships that define Wild Thyme. It is a beautifully-written work that sucks the reader into this strange and beautiful world. The solution to these horrific crimes becomes secondary as the novel progresses, the voice of Henry and his stories and observations the main reason we’re in this to the end. Henry Farrell is the type of character that deserves further outings, though his current placement is likely to make that difficult (just how many people can die in a small town before it becomes ridiculous? I’m looking at you, Midsomer!). One thing is for sure: Tom Bouman is a writer of considerable talent, and Dry Bones in the Valley, one of the best pieces of detective fiction I’ve read in some time, is just the tip of the iceberg.