Wild Thyme is a township lost in rural northeastern Pennsylvania. It’s a place where the locals have awakened from the American Dream to find themselves in the new millennium’s nightmare of dead economies, fracking and heroin addiction. It’s a place so small it employs a single full-time police officer: Henry Farrell. A youngish, bearded, fiddle-playing widower and part-time barn builder, he first appeared as the narrator of Tom Bouman’s 2014 debut novel, “Dry Bones in the Valley ,” which was awarded an Edgar Award for best first mystery and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Bouman’s new novel, “Fateful Mornings,” is as rich and satisfying as its predecessor — another relentless thriller that reads like a literary novel.
The people in both books make terrible mistakes and suffer terrible consequences. Bouman understands that most crimes result from toxic brews of passion and addiction, poverty and resentment. Henry Farrell himself does not go down these mean roads with his purity untarnished. In “Dry Bones in the Valley,” for example, Farrell foolishly got involved with a married woman; in “Fateful Mornings,” it’s his turn to pay for mistakes. Despite professional and personal errors, though, he remains a decent man concerned for his fellow travelers.
Bouman created Farrell out of the earth of this region, and in classical fashion sent him away to war (Mogadishu) and brought him back home, where he could see his origins with new eyes. “I’d been raised by a father like an ironwood tree,” Farrell says. “He never took off his camo except on Sunday, when we’d sit in an off-brand church and hear peculiar, harsh beliefs. My family’s home had been small, and in the hills, and I barely graduated high school.”
Unlike most crime writers, Bouman notices the natural stage as much as the human drama unfolding on it, and animals receive the same sympathy as other characters. When he accidentally kills a bat, Farrell thinks, “A quick, unfair death.” Birds catch his eye: “I love a cedar waxwing. So perfect and somehow aloof, on its own business.” Here in rural and small-town America, animals leave their marks everywhere. “Inside the garage,” he notes, “I passed a roadster convertible half covered with a tarp, raccoon prints crisscrossing its dusty windshield.” At times the natural world provides apt analogies. “Greedy little things,” Farrell says of the carnivorous weasels called fishers. “They just kill and kill, stash what they’ve got and move on, leave food on the table. They’d bury us in a second if they could.”
In “Fateful Mornings,” a human fisher haunts the never-innocent township. With convincingly suspenseful turns of the screw, Bouman provides an original, terrifying take on the hoary old serial-killer theme. The plot is so interwoven that providing details risks spoilers. What begins as a search for a missing young woman grows into a network of secrets whose uncovering will shock the whole region. “I hate telling you about this,” Farrell confides, “it makes me sick.” At this rate, Bouman will have to be careful that Wild Thyme does not become as homicidally depopulated as Miss Marple’s hamlet of St. Mary Mead.
Bouman includes a brief bibliographical thank-you to source books and specialists, but even without it, his nuanced research — on courtroom law, drug addiction, barn building — underlies the story like the strata that shape the hills of Wild Thyme. Farrell’s approach to building barns evolves into a metaphor for building the future out of the past, searching for reusable strength, constantly repurposing and striving for beauty in the result — or perhaps even in the process. Detective novels are notoriously conservative in their restoration of order, but the order in Farrell’s world is precarious. For survivors, however, a painful search for meaning goes on amid the waxwings and fiddle tunes.
Near the end of the book, Farrell and his friends play music on the site of a barn he is helping build from lost shelters of the past: “Wild Thymers drifted in and out of our work site, in and out of the life of a long-gone era we could only wonder at now. . . . I yawned, a great world-eating yawn, and I played.”
By Tom Bouman
W.W. Norton. 353 pages. $26.95