Monday, March 01, 2021

Guilt Stalks the Sheriff, in NIGHTHAWK'S WING from Charles Fergus

In the second Gideon Stolz mystery, set in Pennsylvania Dutch terrain in 1836, the young sheriff is acutely aware of how different he is from many of the people he's supposed to protect and serve. There's his accent, of course, and his personal legacy of loss and violence, yet equally important are his beliefs about justice and worship, strands that are vital in a community still very much built as a set of frontier settlements.

But as NIGHTHAWK'S WING takes off, Gideon has far more to worry about than just feeling awkward among others. He hasn't recovered from striking his head in a fall from a horse, and the ongoing physical effects and memory loss threaten his job, his reputation, even his marriage and his liberty. As he realizes he's not even keeping up with routine tasks, his questions turn frightening:

Gideon asked himself why he hadn't remembered the horse as soon as he smelled the stench. Or before he went out for his walk. Or maybe he had remembered it and had gone out from the jail to check on whether the horse had been removed, and then forgotten why he'd ventured out in the first place.

Why couldn't he remember such things? ... Why couldn't he remember anything about his own accident, getting thrown off Maude or otherwise falling off her, striking his head on the ground, and (so he'd been told) lying insensible on the road?

He worried about the gap in his memory. He didn't know how far back it went.

Charles Fergus delicately draws out the differences in pioneer culture—the absence of medical knowledge, the fragmented communities from different European roots who knew just enough to be suspicious of each other, the fierce expectations of gender and age—as Gideon investigates a violent death on a farm some distance from the town where he lives. Has there been accidental poisoning? Are there implications of witchcraft, and of punishment for such deviation? Worst of all, he discovers incontrovertible evidence of having played a role in the tensions on the farm, before the death: With no reliable memories of what had taken him there at the time and of what had taken place, must he now suspect himself of abuse or violence?

Even Pastor Nolf in the farming community represents strangeness to Gideon. As sheriff, he needs to grasp how this German offshoot of religion functions here:

Nolf continued, "You asked earlier if I thought that Rebecca Kreidler had a disturbed mind. I told you yes, I did sense that. I also sensed in her a deep anger and a black despair. As Neigeboren, we work to purge from our lives that which would not be pleasing to the One we serve, including anger and despair. One thing I have been considering since her body was found: I think it's very possible that Frau Kreidler took her own life. That she purposely ate a plant she knew would kill her, and in a way that would inflict severe pain."

Meanwhile, Gideon's double distraction—over the dead woman's cause of death, and over his own possible enmeshment in the case—results in his effectively abandoning his gravely depressed young wife. Each of them, Gideon and True, is still in deep pain over the death, from illness, of their small child. And neither seems able to give the other what's needed. There's a chance that the marriage may be damaged beyond repair, despite Gideon's love for True. She reminds him: "You only believe in what's standing in front of you and nothing else. There's other ways of seeing, other ways of knowing. Maybe someday you'll figure that out."

Fergus's measured pace, rich with the feel of the raw, unsettled landscape and its fragile human bonds, provides a depth to the double mystery: the crime, and how to reinvent a marriage after a child's death. Not until the very end of the book will the answers become clear—and the pain and loss along the way are vivid and visceral. In the tradition of Jeffrey Lent's In the Fall, Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, and even Nathaniel Hawthorne's early American novels, NIGHTHAWK'S WING melds human frailty and strength into the very texture of the place and time, creating a mystery that will call for multiple readings that savor its layers and revelations.

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

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