Just about two months ago, I reviewed the most charming of mysteries (the first in a series) called "The Rock Hole", written by the most charming of Texans that I'd met at Sleuthfest. Reavis Wortham sets the stage for what is sure to be an amazing series of books that take place in Texas in the 1960's, starring an aging constable and a cast of endearing family members and neighbors. I thought Wortham did a masterful job at not only cooking up a realistic but chilling antagonist, but creating a memorable snapshot of an era that was simple and honest yet evolving. I was smitten, and I couldn't wait for more.
I didn't have to wait long. Reavis warned me that his second installment was decidedly darker, and that his bride had deemed it "Harper Lee meets Stephen King". How right she was!
Synopsis: Not long after the harrowing events in "The Rock Hole", constable Ned Parker decides to turn in his badge and retire to live the uneventful life of a cotton farmer. Meanwhile his nephew Cody, a Vietnam Vet who has a rogue streak in him, takes over the position that, at the worst of times, requires chasing down a few moonshiners, getting the drunks off the roads, and discouraging drag-racing teenagers.
Soon, however, headless bodies start to show up around their neck of the woods, part of a multi-state killing spree that leads Ned, Cody and Deputy John Washington (the law for the black citizens of town) to an abandoned Cotton Exchange warehouse. There they find a situation like they have never seen before, nor even imagined. As Ned and John enter this house of horrors, their worst nightmares are realized, and they soon wonder if they'll ever manage to get out alive (and if they do, will they ever be sane again?).
My thoughts: Wortham definitely did take a sharp right turn off this path of nostalgia this time around! And you know it from the first chapter. Seriously, one of the best opening chapters I have ever read. Holy cow, I knew I was in for it from that moment on. We travel into the surreal, the deranged, and the unexpected. I'm always preaching about today's mysteries needing a hook, needing something different...well you won't want for anything here. The scene in the Cotton Exchange was unlike anything I'd read before. I had to wonder how Wortham conjured it to this level of detail.
Now, it wasn't ALL about channeling Stephen King. We did get to catch up with Ned, his struggle with his retirement, and his struggle with keeping his grandkids on the straight and narrow and out of trouble. I had to chuckle at Ned and the local judge's scheme to "arrest" his grandson and put him the local jail for a hour, to scare him away from smoking cigarettes. But the majority of the story was not focused on the children this time. They only provided an occasional point of view.
As with "The Rock Hole", I'm appreciative of the nod to race relations in this novel, which were a constant presence and a source of conflict in the 1960's. What I love the most is the author's attitude towards a kinship and a collaboration between the blacks and the whites. You'd think by reading the books published today that people of color live on another planet, but Wortham bucks this whitewashing trend.
Overall I'm thrilled with this strong entry into the mystery series genre. The literary voice and the unfolding events in this installment are unforgettable. You can't ask for more than that.
4.5 out of 5 stars