dry-bones-in-the-valleyReading ‘Dry Bones in the Valley’  by Tom Bouman is like taking a breath of fresh country air after too much time spent in the city. Nothing wrong with a good urban crime story of course, but I simply love the way Bouman has woven the Pennsylvania countryside into the plot: its woods and valleys and ridges and peaks, together with the lives of its sparse, hardy inhabitants.

He does it by a subtle blend of smooth yet lyrical prose and excellent sense of narrative timing, nailing you to the page despite the fact that the pace of life in rural Wild Thyme Township is, even in the face of a mounting body count, sedate almost to distraction.
Which is fine by Detective Henry Farrell, who leads a municipal police corps of two. He’s a quiet, engaging man, no-nonsense in his approach to life and clearly in his element in Wild Thyme’s woods (we will learn only later the reasons for their appeal to him).  Bouman is shy in letting the reader know about him, and does so piecemeal, while irresistibly drawing you into the plot.

On Farrell’s idyllic patch, just as winter is thawing into a reluctant spring, two dead bodies appear in quick succession. He has to enlist the help of law-enforcement colleagues from outside the township to deal with what seem to be two apparently unconnected murders. But the lines of enquiry soon tangle up and reveal a bewildering series of potential connections to other criminal activities: from the under-hand dealings of fracking companies and greedy landowners to deep-seated family rifts which may hide unspeakable, long-buried crimes; from meth labs and petty drug dealing to the locals’ readiness  to forego the due process of a very distant law and take matters in their own hands – most of the time very heavily armed – to solve any conflict, be it a marital infidelity or a boundary dispute.

The tough abrasiveness of life in rural areas, where an often unforgiving nature dictates much of what human beings do, is a surprising and brilliantly-rendered counterpart to the beautiful Pennsylvania landscape. Bouman balances the two skilfully, never letting one element swamp the other and creating finely-sketched characters. If anything the cast is surprisingly large, considering how thinly scattered the local population is, but Bouman manages them well and makes some of them stand out: old, nearly-demented Aub Dunigan, with his jealously-guarded past, and rough, defiant Tracy Dufaigh, a local girl who hasn’t exactly turned out good though not for want of trying, are just two of those worth mentioning.

There is a sobriety to Bouman’s writing which allows you to enjoy all the complex strands he’s woven into the story, as Farrell, with the patience and instinct of the deer-hunter, slowly fits together the pieces of what turns out to be a very complex puzzle with a truly surprising denouement.  So complex in fact that some of its pieces remain a little loose, a reminder that in life just as in nature, nothing is perfect and the struggle for survival and adaption is endless.