Tom Bouman is a serious writer — literate, understated, elegant — and “Dry Bones in the Valley” is an exciting and disturbing debut. His detective, Henry Farrell, comes alive in a way that pulls us into his story from our first glimpse of him barefoot on his porch with a cup of coffee.
Farrell is a thoughtful police officer in Wild Thyme Township, in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, a land of fracking and meth labs and old sins with long shadows. The sounds of crews clearing gas well pads and drilling are omnipresent, with tanker trucks crowding “dirt roads newly widened to let them pass.” Farrell keeps a tiny office in a cinder-block building that houses the volunteer fire department. He spends most of his time failing to find items stolen from places such as Grace Tractor Sales and Rental.
Until a body turns up. The bitter winter has given way to a sluggish March melt that reveals the corpse of a young man on the property of Aub Dunigan, who is aged, probably mad and possibly the murderer. Farrell is accompanied to the site by Dunigan’s cousin, because everything in this book is about kinship, no matter how shattered families may be by pain and treachery. Farrell pursues this tragedy into fracking sites, abandoned houses, up mountainsides and through swamps, and into desperate conversations in sad little kitchens.
Farrell is a bearded, lonely, fiddle-playing young man born and raised in this untamed region. Descended from Irish soldiers who fought in the Civil War, the family was named the Fearghails until World War II, when Farrell’s grandfather changed the name. Other families have equally tangled roots in the area. Some of them Farrell went to school with before he went to fight in Mogadishu, such as Danny Stiobhard, whose clan members “sidestep law, object to government, and profit off the land. Poachers of lumber and deer, burglars, rumored to be dipping toes in the drug trade, they believe they are fighting an eternal Whiskey Rebellion.”
The Stiobhards are a scary lot, and their petty and vicious schemes haunt these pages. Farrell has friends in Wild Thyme but no particular enemies, just people such as the Stiobhards who won’t hesitate to hurt him if he gets in their way. It’s a gritty, dark side of America, these families warped by ignorance and poverty in their overlooked coves and swamps. Although he is a far more realistic character, Farrell ultimately needs to be as tough and brave as Philip Marlowe — while, it’s important to note, lacking Marlowe’s childish fear of women. A patient and thorough cop, Farrell tries to remember the rule that his fiddle teacher taught him, “the virtue of slowness.”
What Bouman does remarkably well is convince us that these people are achingly real. The characters don’t behave like actors receiving their cues, suddenly moving around in suspicious or threatening ways because a scene has started. These people were living busy lives when Farrell drove up in his aging police car. When he visits a mom-and-pop sporting-goods store to ask about recent gun sales, plastic child gates guard the office door, and Farrell glimpses a little girl “combing the hair of a doll that had one eyelid shut.” Such details conjure up whole scenes. Bouman brings Farrell to life in part by anchoring his story in the detective’s physical presence. When he treks the hillsides after criminals, Farrell’s allegedly waterproof boots can’t keep his socks dry. He has headaches and indigestion. When he gets hurt, the pain lingers and evolves, as it does in a real body; it isn’t forgotten by the next chapter. The blood in this book never seems requisitioned from a prop shop; it seeps warm from wounded skin.
And, with Dickensian generosity, Bouman extends this kind of characterization to the world beyond the human. “My office,” Farrell notes, “came equipped with an industrial-sized restaurant coffeemaker but my predecessor evidently lost the pot with the brown spout, leaving me only the orange one meant for decaf.” When Farrell and others find the first corpse, they are so surprised that they remain “silent and still so long that the chickadees started singing again.” Bouman brings his world to life with texture that gives every room and vehicle and person a history and character, keeping us immersed in this mesmerizing and often terrifying story.
Sims’s new book, “The Phantom Coach,” an anthology of Victorian ghost stories, will be published next month.
DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY
By Tom Bouman
Norton. 284 pp. $24.95