A small-town chief of police acquires a dog en route to solving a vicious case of murder in Terry Shames’ “A Reckoning in the Back Country.”
Samuel Craddock, who’s come out of retirement to run the local police department on a shoestring, finds his resources stretched when Margaret Wilkins reports her husband missing. Dr. Lewis Wilkins, last seen leaving the couple’s vacation home on Jarrett Creek Lake, told his wife he was going fishing. When Craddock interviews Dooley Phillips, a friend of Wilkins’ who owns a local marina and claims to have no clue where he could be, Craddock thinks he’s lying. Craddock’s also uneasy over a number of cases of dognapped pets and the rumor that there’s a dogfighting ring in the area that may be using them as bait. He has to wonder if the rumor is true when Wilkins’ badly mauled body is discovered in the woods. At first it seems he was attacked by feral dogs, but dogs surely didn’t tie him up before they attacked. While searching the woods, Craddock stumbles upon a starving puppy whose mother he finds dead, and he goes from temporary dogsitter to devoted pet owner. He learns that Wilkins’ life was a complicated one. He lost a major malpractice suit that left his family in financial trouble. Both his children are angry with their parents, and his wife seems oddly indifferent to his fate. He never did any fishing, but he did own a cabin cruiser he won in a poker game that Dooley somehow never mentioned. When Craddock finally finds Wilkins’ missing vehicle, it contains a handgun and $200,000 in cash. Is the money from gambling on dogfights? Craddock’s one childhood experience at a dogfight has given him a visceral hatred for the cruelty involved. Although he’s warned that it’s dangerous to meddle, he continues to hunt for answers.
Shames has created an endearing hero with an old-fashioned sense of honor. Although her latest is less puzzling than its most recent predecessor (“An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock,” 2017), it’s still an enjoyable, often disturbing read.
(Shames will speak and sign copies of her book starting at 7 p.m. Feb. 5 at BookPeople, along with James Ziskin and Laura Oles. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)
Love, depression and acceptance
Barlow Eckel’s debut novel, “The Moon-Glo Miasma,” offers a 63-year-old man’s remembrance of a high school relationship, told with the wisdom of experience.
After 35 years away, Coop Berkoff returns to his hometown of Spartans Ridge, Georgia, for a high school reunion. The reunion involves multiple past classes, so it’s emotionally fraught for Coop, as he’ll be seeing his lost love, Cynthia Weaver, for the first time in decades. He was once a precocious and joyful young man, but when he met Cynthia in his senior year, his life took a turn. She was slightly younger than he was, and she immediately captivated him; he professed his feelings at the Moon-Glo drive-in theater—a decision that changed his life. Despite their strong feelings for each other, jealousy and uncertainty plagued their relationship. Cynthia needed to be reassured of Coop’s—or any man’s—goodness, and, later, Coop found himself desperately wanting her approval. When he went off to college, the combination of distance and jealousy became poisonous, and Coop became misanthropic and even violent toward others as he struggled with his own depression and malaise. The characters’ turbulent history offers not a story of romance but, eventually, one of understanding, acceptance and moving on. Readers may find that the tone of the prose seems detached at times, but this distance is actually one of the novel’s greatest strengths. The emotions of the characters run high throughout the story, but it’s told from a point of view of recollection decades later, and the nigh-clinical precision with which the author describes events allows readers to have greater sympathy and understanding than closer narration might have achieved. The result is a complex, character-driven study dealing with depression, love, and the stubborn refusal to give up the fight.
This debut is an illuminating, if sometimes-painful, dissection of a relationship.
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