Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Investigator in Pain, Revealing the Cost of Murder, in R. J. Ellory's THE DEVIL AND THE RIVER

The moment I opened the American publication of R. J. Ellory's THE DEVIL AND THE RIVER, I knew I was hooked. Although I spread my reading time for the nearly 400 pages over several days, I would have loved to skip work and just stay on the couch with this book. Not only does it probe life in a sleepy Mississippi town, with a pointed finger trailing through voodoo as well as murder -- but it probes the residue of the Vietnam War through the flashbacks and soul-deep damage to investigator John Gaines. Here's the first paragraph, under the chapter heading "Wednesday, July 24, 1974":
When the rains came, they found the girl's face. Just her face. At least that was how it appeared. And then came her hand -- small and white and fine like porcelain. It surfaced from the black mud and showed itself. Just her face and her hand, the rest of her still submerged. To look down the riverbank and see just her hand and her face was surreal and disturbing. And John Gaines -- who had lately, and by providence or default, come to the position of sheriff of Whytesburg, Breed County, Mississippi, and before that had come alive from the nine circles of hell that was the war in Vietnam, who was himself born in Lafayette, a Louisianan from the start -- crouched on his haunches and surveyed the scene with a quiet mind and a steady eye.
This is what we demand of our best crime-solving people: a quiet mind and a steady eye, and an inner recognition of the horrors and pain embedded in violence. If only it could all be balanced neatly! But as Gaines will soon discover, to probe the roots of this death will also mean reactivating his own most terrible memories of the war, and facing what it has done to him.

The body surfacing from the muddy river bank turns out to be that of Nancy Denton. When she was just 16, two decades earlier, she'd gone for a walk in the Whytesburg woods -- and never returned. Very quickly, John Gaines realizes hers is not a recent death, but perhaps one that dates to the day of her disappearance. How has the body been preserved? What actions were taken before it found a resting place? And who felt the need to kill this lovely young woman?

Gaines is an inexperienced sheriff, driven by poignant and forceful memories of killing and survival in the Vietnam jungles, as well as by a longing to have his returned-to-America life carry some goodness, some meaning, and deep justice. He soon finds that Nancy's teen years took place in a small group of close friends, where romances were both budding and frustrated. And a powerful Southern family, the Wades, is somehow involved in covering up what happened 20 years earlier.

Gaines's most direct route back to the "cold case" is through another veteran, this one of an earlier war: Michael Webster, one of the lucky ones who returned from live action in World War II, minus all the others in his fighting group. Could it be Michael, with his own raw PTSD, who killed Nancy Denton? One of the Wade family members, defending Michael, challenges Gaines to go easy on this veteran so similar in some ways to himself:
"You are perhaps made of stronger stuff than Lieutenant Webster. Some men are just a little more fragile than others, you know?"

"You're telling me that he is the victim here? Are you f**ing crazy?"

"Oh, I am saying nothing of the sort, Sheriff. I am well aware that a heinous crime has been perpetrated here, that some poor girl was abused and murdered, but this was all twenty years ago ... I just think Michael Webster is incapable of establishing any kind of stable ground for his own defense, and I would like to think I am assisting him with his constitutional right to fair representation when it comes to his day in court."

"This is just bullsh**, if you don't mind me saying, Mr. Wade."
What Gaines suspects, beyond the possible violent act in the past by Webster, is that Wade himself is somehow involved in the coverup, for reasons of his own. Or could Wade have been the killer?

It's complicated. And Sheriff John Gaines can't get to the truth without sorting his own war memories and what they have done to his capacity to be human, to be caring, to take part in community.

Don't be confused by earlier releases of the book in the United Kingdom; this is the American release, orchestrated by Overlook. If, like me, you carry conflicting emotions and memories of the Vietnam War years, here is a potent narrative in which to reconsider your own past, as well as the country's. And if you value a crime novel that probes the vulnerability and courage of the mind -- as Charles Todd has done with his World War I-era detectives, for instance -- you'll want the book on your shelf for repeated reading. Add it also to novels of the South and the grief and beauty entwined there.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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