Sunday, January 17, 2010

When the Isolated Countryside Turns Treacherous: John H. Vibber, SHADOW ON CANT-DOG HILL

I remember moving 30 miles south, settling into a village near the small town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont (pop. 7000 or so if you count the outlying areas). The snow was a bit less persistent, mostly due to a change in altitude, and the gardening season stretched two weeks longer, quite a blessing. There was only one supermarket in town then, but two movie theaters, and a police force. The regional high school and the hospital hired about as many people as the two biggest local manufacturing plants. Compared to my northern village, though, I'd moved into a far more modern and accessible world, and my former neighbors said bluntly that I'd left the region called the Northeast Kingdom, going urban.

And there's something to be said for that: The farther north you are in Vermont, the more the mountains and weather tend to isolate you. On the surface, that might just mean that at the post office they know your name, and grocery shopping might happen only once every two weeks, instead of every couple of days. But underneath, the distance is measured in independence and interdependence -- you've got to know your neighbor, because the next time you slide off the road on ice, that's who will either help you get the car back onto the sanded stretch, or loan you a phone, or take you to the garage where the tow truck rests. And also help you figure how to take care of your kids while you're solving your problems. And later, equally important, stop in for a celebratory hot beverage and a taste of your best apple pie.

Head northeast from here, up into the region of Vermont that's an hour or two from any interstate highway, and that interdependence is even more essential. With it comes the sense of everyone knowing a bit about everyone else's business. Heck, the party line -- the kind of phone line that had different numbers of rings for different houses, but four or eight or more could pick up and listen in if they chose to -- well, that's only been gone for about 30 years in Vermont's most rural region.

In this vastly different world, John Vibber's new mystery plays out its threats, suspense, and rescues. The book opens with a quick glimpse of psychopathic murderous behavior, then blinks and lands in the midst of any parent's nightmare: Your child is away with friends, and you walk up your own hill, and find the bloody body of your spouse. Except it's worse for teacher Reilly Bostwick, because everyone knows he had to go all the way to England to bring back his daughter Amy, after Amy's mother snatched her. And now Amy's mother Klarissa is lying there, dead -- who on earth will believe that Reilly had nothing to do with this? And how can he tell his daughter what he's found?

One after another, though, Reilly's friends, as well as his new girlfriend, gather around his situation. As he sits in jail, frantic and frightened (but marginally safer, since he's out of reach of the killer!), the best people of the small town where he lives dig into the details and fight for justice, for freedom, and for young Amy. The answers to the crime must lie within the isolation of the town, yes? Oh, but wait a minute -- Klarissa came from England. Could there be connections that stretch across the mountains and over the ocean? How much range does evil have, anyway? In his jail cell, Reilly has so little chance of fixing anything:

The cell light blinked out as Reilly heard hollow footsteps at the end of the hallway. A moan rose from the next cell as the drunk rolled in his bunk. Caught in mid-reverie, Reilly had been abruptly forced back to the perils of his cage. The second jolt hit hi as his thoughts returned to Amy. While Reilly lay in the hollow silence of shadows, panic again welled up in him. His mind returned to the same horrible thought as the remaining hall lights went black. He lay considering how much time was left before Amy would learn some errant version of events presented as the truth: the screaming lie ... your father murdered your mother.
Vibber's book has sold well in the border towns of Canaan, West Stewartstown, and Colebrook, where the detailed landscape of SHADOW ON CANT-DOG HILL is a close match to the towns and their surroundings. A retired teacher from Rutland, Vermont, this stalwart Yankee has worked his way into a new career and his audience up north is enjoying it highly.

If you love a rugged landscape and its families and their stories, you'll enjoy adding Vibber's book to your shelf of place-centered mysteries that literally couldn't take place anywhere else -- and yet at the same time, that tap into the nature of friendship, determination, and belief in what justice ought to be. Purchase a copy from an independent Vermont bookstore or directly from the author, at -- and if you're in Vermont, you'll have a good chance to meet him as he travels around the state.

PS - Just in case the title keeps nudging at you: "Cant dog" is a term for a log-moving tool, a hooked variant of the peavy.  And logging is the root endeavor of the northern hills.

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