Tom Bouman kind of exploded on to the crime fiction scene with his Edgar winning debut Dry Bones in the Valley in 2015. That was the first novel in a series featuring Henry Farrell, a Vietnam veteran getting over the death of his first wife who has returned to his rural roots in Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania, to become the town cop. A second novel Fateful Mornings followed in 2017 and now we have The Bramble and the Rose. Lean and mean and with every word a modern noir. Henry Farrell, now married again, is still not comfortable around people and crowds, he’s a bit of a loner by nature, a guy not entirely comfortable in his own skin. Any notions that his job is some kind of sinecure are soon dispelled when it becomes clear that north-eastern Pennsylvania, Wild Thyme in particular, has more than its fair share of problems; It’s nowhere near as idyllic as the breath-taking scenery might lead readers to believe. The contrast between natural beauty, peace, tranquillity, and human behaviour is stark, and a recurring motif for the novel. Rural crime fiction isn’t a new thing but Bouman is one of a small number of new authors presenting it with fresh eyes to an increasing urban American/world population. The problems are universal but brushed under the carpet too often. The countryside has wealth and great vistas but Wild Thyme is no tourist haven, there are real troubles here; poverty, lack of opportunity, and drug issues – fentanyl and heroin, and then there’s the visitors:
“In our new century it had become clear that we need a bigger jail and a bigger morgue. More and more, people got lost wandering, and after stumbling down a path, they ended up in one bleach-soaked room or another.”
When Henry Farrell, the one man police force of Wild Thyme, working out of the back of the town garage, returns to that ‘office/station’ Terry Ceallaigh, (pronounced Kelly), is waiting for him. Terry has never seen anything like the dead man he just found in the woods off Red Pine Road. Henry has invited the county sheriff and local conservation officer Shaun Loughlin to join them so the two men head back to the scene. When they stop Henry goes into the woods alone, the smell of the body a mile off leads the way. The body has been eviscerated, the head is missing, Henry tapes the scene boundary then does a recce of the area. He finds the head in a hollow tree, taken by raccoons. The others arrive, it looks like the possible killer/opportunist carnivore is a bear, a normally benign American Black Bear that now has the taste for human meat, so they’ve got to kill it before it attacks again. There’s no wallet, no gear with the body and it looks like the head may have been severed by a sharp rock, so probably not the work of a bear. Keeping that suspicion to themselves for now, they declare it an animal attack, the corpse was partially eaten after all. That night Henry and the biologist up from Harrisburg, Dr Mary Weaver, lie in wait for the bear. When the attack comes it’s a man with a knife, perhaps returning to the scene for something he forgot, he’s surprised by Weaver and Henry and runs off when shots are fired. There are indications the man could have been involved in a bike RTA, but what happened then? The body was found on Mark Moore’s land, Mark has a running dispute with neighbour Terry Caellaigh so things were already tense in the area but this discovery has everyone on edge. Killer or no they still have to find the human flesh eating bear. Henry turns hunter again but as the name of the victim is uncovered Henry’s investigation leads him to dark places. The enemy is very human, much more dangerous than Ursus Americanus. The tables turn on Henry and he becomes prey to far more devious hunters determined to kill him or turn the county against him.
The Bramble and the Rose is strong on atmosphere, the claustrophobic feel of the hunt within a hunt and the sense of the small community overwhelmed by the wilderness is palpable. This is a place where everyone knows everyone’s business, every crime reflects back on a neighbour, or a cousin, or even the whole town. This is a gritty novel with a great protagonist, a man unsure of himself in some ways but tough and resourceful, smarter than the average bear, (sorry). Henry is steeped in the local life but still a little distant, that can work for him and against him. The Bramble and the Rose has that sense of rural decay and decline in the background but this is a very individual story, it’s not a indictment of rural life. On the contrary the author’s love of place, of people, shines out.
This novel is elegantly written, well plotted, and deceptively intricate, emotionally and psychologically insightful. There are occasional touches of humour and a beautiful slow burn in the telling that reflects the pace of life in the sticks, it reminds me a little of Donald Ray Pollack territory and Daniel Woodrell in particular. A classy slice of Americana.
Paul Burke 4/4*
The Bramble and the Rose by Tom Bouman
9780571358168 Faber & Faber Paperback 2nd April 2020