Lisa Howorth has taken the adage “write what you know” and turned it on its head. In this case, she’s written what she may never know for sure: the solution to her brother’s slaying.
When Howorth was a teenager in 1966, her 9-year-old stepbrother was molested and killed near their home in Bethesda. At the time, the crime was covered on the front page of The Washington Post. His killer has never been found.
“There hadn’t been organized searches or milk cartons or Amber alerts or DNA in those days,” Howorth writes in her debut novel, “Flying Shoes.” “Kids didn’t disappear and weren’t killed then. They weren’t sex objects. They didn’t get left to broil in parked cars and day-care vans; there wasn’t such a thing as day care. Newborns weren’t found in Dumpsters. Dumpsters didn’t even exist.”
Today, Howorth is the co-owner, with her husband, of Square Books in Oxford, Miss., which was named the 2013 Bookstore of the Year by Publishers Weekly. She has said in interviews that there was never a doubt as to what the subject of her first novel would be. She began writing after realizing that the investigation had been botched and that her brother’s murder might never be solved.
“Flying Shoes” opens with the main character, Mary Byrd Thornton, receiving unwelcome news: Her brother Stevie’s case is being re-opened, a detective tells her, and he needs her to come to Virginia the next week to look at new evidence. He claims it’s to give the family closure, but the sudden urgency may or may not have something to do with a reporter who’s digging into the bungled investigation.
Her stepfather died of a heart attack months after Stevie was killed. The rest of the family has coped with the tragedy by resolutely never talking about it. “And now Mary Byrd and her family would revisit it, especially if the reporter went with it, and who knew how long it would go on and what would come of it. . . . Even now, when she did have to think about it, was reminded of it, her part in it wasn’t unlike the crick in her shoulder, that small but naggy pain in her left wing-bone . . . . A pinched nerve that stayed pinched.”
“Flying Shoes,” to be clear, is not a mystery, and any reader approaching it as such is likely to give up in frustration long before Mary Byrd gets into a truck full of dead chickens to talk to the detective. (She’s afraid of flying, and, well, that’s just how Mary Byrd rolls.) Instead, it’s a meditation on a long-ago crime and a meandering, mostly charming character study of a quirky Italian-Southern woman. Like Mary Byrd, the plot puts off dealing with Stevie’s murder for as long as possible, in favor of any handy distraction — gardening, family history, a new murder, a gigantic ice storm.
The novel takes detours into the minds of Mary Byrd’s would-be lover; her aristocratic, emotionally distant husband (who can barely muster a “there, there” about Stevie’s killing); and her disapproving maid, Evagreen, who is dealing with her own heartbreak. Evagreen’s story could have made for a compelling novel of its own, but instead gets too few pages as the eccentricities flow freely. The most memorable character in “Flying Shoes” is Tolliver “Teever” Barr, a homeless Vietnam veteran and Mary Byrd’s sometime handyman.
Then there’s Mary Byrd, herself, a well-meaning magpie whom one character accuses of being a “quaint-hound.” A vague but caring mother of two, she thinks she should probably be more concerned about science fair projects and the fact that her 8-year-old son has gotten into a stack of Hustlers. On the other hand, her kids are still alive and healthy and, therefore, will probably be fine.
All the digressions tend to sap the suspense behind the case, but in compensation, “Flying Shoes”offers a well-done portrait of a girl who survived a horrific tragedy and emerged in middle age with her empathy, sense of generosity and ability to forgive intact.
Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.
By Lisa Howorth
Bloomsbury. 304 $26