Tuesday, June 20, 2017


FATEFUL MORNINGS by Tom Bouman (WW Norton Company, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

In Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania, summer has brought Officer Henry Farrell nothing but trouble. Heroin has arrived with a surge in burglaries and other crime. When local carpenter Kevin O’Keeffe admits that he shot a man and that his girlfriend, Penny, is missing, the search leads the small-town cop to an industrial vice district across state lines that has already ensnared more than one of his neighbors. With the patience of a hunter, Farrell ventures into a world of shadow beyond the fields and forests of home.

We’ve had to wait around three years for a sequel to Bouman’s exquisite, mesmerizing debut Dry Bones in the Valley (2014), which deservedly won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and the LA Times Prize, among other accolades. That was a novel that made you sit up and take notice, the crime writing equivalent of a late summer lightning strike as you were peacefully watching rain pockmark the surface of a lake in the woods. As a fan of rural noir, Bouman's debut immediately put him on my 'must-read-whatever-they-put-out-next' list. And then I waited...

Now at last we’re back alongside Office Henry Farrell on his beat among the backwoods and byways of rural Pennsylvania. Farrell is having a trouble-filled summer in his small township of Wild Thyme. While he’d rather be hunting turkey, drinking IPAs, and playing his fiddle, instead he’s busy dealing with the arrival of heroin, a surge in burglaries, and an adulterous fling from which he can’t seem to extract himself. Meanwhile the shadow of his wife still haunts the widower.

When local handyman Kevin O’Keeffe’s drug-addled girlfriend disappears from their trailer, and O’Keeffe gives a rambling semi-confession to maybe shooting a man, Farrell’s life gets even more complicated. He’s pulled in all sorts of directions by the various powers and influences in his community, as he tries to sort the truth from everything that obscures. And there's a lot that obscures. His investigations take him across the state border to the backcountry equivalent of vice-filled back alleyways, as well as digging without much success into the lives of the eclectic folk in his patch.

Fateful Mornings is an interesting, at times frustrating, read.

Bouman’s elegant prose and knack for evoking backcountry life in vivid detail is again on show, but this sophomore effort lacks the tension and narrative drive of his debut.

Dry Bones in the Valley earned comparisons to rural noir masters like John Hart and James Lee Burke, but in Fateful Mornings Bouman veers more towards James Sallis territory, with formless and meandering plotting, in among lots of lovely description and characterization. He doesn’t quite, yet, have Sallis’ touch for making that work, but there’s still plenty of quality here.

The plotline is not so much two steps forward, one step back, as one step forward, three to the side, circle back around, and bow to your partner. Bouman's writing is elegant, poetic, and unique, and there are interesting strands of philosophy and different ways of looking at the world threaded throughout, but I can imagine that many readers may find the storyline's looseness off-putting.

I couldn't quite make up my own mind about it, but in the end felt like I admired what Bouman was trying to do rather than being fully engaged in his telling of the tale.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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