Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman

Reviewed by Gill Davies

dry bones (509x800)This is a very enjoyable novel, in the American crime genre but with lots of other things going on too. It has a lively style, some passages of beautiful writing and creates a vivid picture of a rural America that is blighted by poverty, petty crime and the money and power of big gas companies. It is the first novel by Tom Bouman who, like his main character, changed jobs to return to the small-town rural America where he grew up. The novel introduces Officer Henry Farrell, a rural policeman who went back home to Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania two years before to become the local cop, with very limited resources and support. He expects to be mainly dealing with stolen vehicles, DUIs and minor assaults. He lives alone in an isolated farmhouse, spends his leisure time playing traditional music with friends and leading a quiet life. This is disrupted by the discovery of the body of a stranger on land owned by an elderly recluse. The subsequent investigation highlights Farrell’s local knowledge and takes us inside this small rural community:  the isolated, run-down farms in the woods; poachers; suspicious, individualistic hunters and gun-collectors; petty criminals; meth labs and drug dealers. (The novel is reminiscent in places of Daniel Woodrell’s excellent Winter’s Bone, though it remains more firmly in the crime fiction genre.) Farrell knows the back ways around the hills and ridges, and also the history of the families who live there. It is a tough world still divided by family feuds and secrets. The Stiobhards are fiercely territorial, linked to violence, criminality and thieving. Danny Stiobhard seems a more likely murderer (especially when a second murder takes place) than the old man who shot him to warn him off his land at the start of the novel. But possible solutions are complicated by the presence of outsiders, including serious drug-dealers, as well as locals who refuse to co-operate with any authority figures.

There is tension of a different sort caused by the arrival of fracking. People are divided over the issue, especially whether or not to sell out to the gas companies, and this feeds into one thread of the plot. The landscape is  blighted and farmland is reverting to scrub and swamp. It’s an old place – settled by Irish mercenaries who fought in the Civil War and a feeling of decay and collapse permeates the story. All this is an evocative context for the developing, overlapping, plots that link past and present, exposing raw wounds and rivalries. The eventual solution of the mystery draws several threads together in a very satisfying way. Bouman is also very good on small town politics  like elected mayors who cut budgets and undermine police work, the arrogance of the ‘expert’ detectives from the nearby town, the hostility and lack of co-operation from local people. There are moments of pure rural noir, such as a scene in a gun store when Farrell is ‘startled by a girl, about three, seated behind the partition. She was combing the hair of a doll that had one eyelid shut. I waved and she looked blankly back.’ That’s all we know, the girl doesn’t re-appear but the hint of something disturbing remains.

In addition, the plot has served as a vehicle for exploring and developing Farrell’s character and his past life. He is that familiar figure in crime fiction, the outsider/insider and lone pursuer of truth. The novel is told from his point of view –  a self-contained, somewhat lonely figure who reflects with a droll intelligence on the people and events he encounters. He is hit over the head and spends much of the novel with blurred vision and concussion.  It’s an image of the darkening plot and deepening confusion.

Since Alan had whacked me one on the head, my relationship to light had changed. Sometimes I saw too much, and it felt like I was seeing my own pain. Other times what should have been plain before me was shrouded and confused.

Farrell has a troubled past, both personal and professional,  that slowly emerges during the novel. The back story and the allusions to it help to make the character both complex and more sympathetic. Like Philip Marlowe, the classic private eye, he is sharper than most of the other characters and  has to solve the crimes pretty well on his own. His method is explained as he reflects on the title of a folk song:

“A still hunter goes out on his own … and doesn’t have anyone to drive game his way. He knows where the deer will be. He’s not actually still, he sneaks around a bit. He’s on a footing with the game.”

There is a wide range of characters in the novel, all carefully observed and convincingly real.  Bouman is a compassionate writer, with empathy for his characters, and he avoids crude hero and villain stereotypes. In Henry Farrell he has drawn a sensitive and reflective figure who is an unusual law officer. I look forward to meeting him again in subsequent novels.

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Tom Bouman, Dry Bones in the Valley (Faber & Faber: London 2015). 978-0-57132064-6, 284pp., paperback.

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