Let’s talk about the basic recipe for a modern day mystery:
A homicide in a hitherto peaceful place – check.
The police in over their head – check.
An investigator who is brilliant at solving crimes, but who sucks at live in general – check.
I daresay, all the ingredients are there. But the way Chris Offutt blends them together is what separates this book from your run-off-the-mill mystery.
Mick Hardin, our protagonist, suffers from PTSD and has a pregnant wife he’s currently not on speaking terms with. But he also has a keen eye, quick thinking and years of experience as an army investigator. So when the sheriff of his rural Kentucky home – his own sister – asks him for help investigating a homicide, he doesn’t hesitate. He also has an ulterior motive above all – don’t want nobody hurt, because he’s seen too much of it in the army. And he takes this motive to reason with everything, even with a mule working as a post. (You’ll understand it when you see it, I guess.)
And this being Kentucky, Mick and the people he’s going to meet on his twisted road to the truth are all being very, well, Kentucky-ian. Kentucky-ish? Kentuckyanish. I know that I’m missing the real life experience myself, but reading this – and especially the dialogues – just puts you in the right set of mind. I swear I’ve heard the people talk in my head with a rural Kentucky dialect.
(Or at least with what my mind imagines this dialect sounds like. I’m drawing from my experience of watching Justified here, all seasons, with Mick as a stand-in for Marshall Givens. I’m undecided about the role of Boyd Crowder, though.)
The southern style gives this book his appeal, when blood runs thicker than water. And it does, in a place where people judge you by the family name you carry around.
What came a little short, though, were two things: The book itself – only 240 pages – and the mystery part, because there is actually little detecting done in this. That deprives me, as a reader, from the joy of guessing at the killer.
And I have to admit that the end feels unsatisfying to me. I get the chain of events from a logical point of view, but it still feels kinda wrong. Same for the way Mick’s personal drama resolves, though his point of view is relatable. It just feels like the end was kinda rushed, on all sides. And it takes away from the whole “homicide in a peaceful place” vibe.
I end up with a 3.5 out of 5 rating. On the plus side, setting and atmosphere are highlights, the characters are shady enough to make all of it interesting. On the other side, the mystery is a bit disappointing in the end, turning out to be an accident and the rest is just family feuds (apparently it’s everyone’s favorite hobby in the Kentucky hills, and more people are killed because of this than because of the crime).
For me, the whole thing felt kinda lackluster, like a great buildup to a rather short end.