Crimes grow in rich Appalachian soil
Say the word “Appalachia” in some variant or another and the probability is pretty high that someone will come back with a humorous remark — or one he or she thinks is funny, but isn’t. It’s a region that stretches as far north as the state of New York and as far south as the mid-point of Mississippi, with more than 23 million strong living within boundaries that first began to be recognized as a distinct entity in the 19th century. And yet, the snickers emitted when South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford claimed, in 2009, that he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” — rather than own up to an extramarital affair — had as much to do with the culturally backward connotations of his excuse as the scandal itself.
It’s easier to make fun of something one doesn’t understand, and Appalachia’s mix of strong religious ties, farming, crop cultivation and Cherokee Indian folklore produces a brew that might be even more potent than the moonshine the region was long famous for. As a result, the crime fiction that originates from Appalachia teems with pungent smells and sounds and is steeped in the roots of generations of families — and, of course, in blood, especially of past sins coming due in the present.
The undisputed queen of such fiction — even though she has repeatedly professed to loathe being categorized this way — is Sharyn McCrumb. Her series of eight Ballad novels, beginning with “If I Ever Return, Pretty Peggy-O” (1990) and most recently adding “The Devil Amongst the Lawyers” (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s: 336 pp., $24.99) explores Appalachian history and folklore through an autobiographical lens (McCrumb’s family settled in the western North Carolina mountains in the 1790s). Each book is set at a different historical point in time, incorporating real murder cases and pinned structurally on the rhythms of real songs; the series features generations of recurring characters — the predominant, and most beloved by fans, being Nora Bonesteel, a “wise woman” gifted with second sight.
“The Devil Amongst the Lawyers” flashes back to 1935, when the country was mired in the Depression, the Appalachian region hit especially hard. The situation is exacerbated on a national scale when a schoolteacher is tried for murdering her father, and incoming media from urban areas see fit to mock the mountain town for its rural ways. Nora, here age 12, is new to her gift, and immediately she’s seized on by her newspaperman cousin to ferret out the real truth about the murder in the absence of tangible evidence. While the story falters near the end, McCrumb’s obvious love of the region never wavers and offers a lesson or two for those on America’s East and West poles who dare sneer down at those living in-between.
While McCrumb pens a new Ballad novel only every few years, those looking for a fix will be well-satisified by the novels of Vicki Lane, who dwells on a mountain farm in North Carolina. She first attracted attention in crime fiction circles with her series featuring Elizabeth Goodweather, a 50-ish proprietor of an herb and flower garden with an open heart and a curious mind about beliefs she may not necessarily share. Those traits serve her well as an amateur sleuth looking into crimes in Ridley Branch, where members of militia groups, back-to-the-landers, believers in extraterrestrials and fundamentalist Christians all dwell together, uncomfortably enough to throw up a murder every now and then.
With “The Day of Small Things” (Dell: 414 pp., $7.99 paper), Lane moves away from the series and more in a direction first traveled by both McCrumb and Carolyn Wall, author of the excellent 2008 novel “Sweeping Up Glass” (Delta: 336 pp., $15 paper). Lane uses a traumatic birth scene to introduce us to a baby whose mother, in a fit of pique from too many babies birthed already, names her Least — and proceeds to treat her youngest child with disdain, neglect and, occasionally, abuse.
Employing a langorous prose style inflected with mountain dialect, Lane unspools the arc of Least’s life, from her grandmother’s discovery that she has The Sight (“I knowed the first minute I seen the child Least that she had the Gifts — could read it in her eyes — though it was likewise clear she hadn’t no idea of what the Gifts are and how she might use them”) to marriage to a man deeply wedded to the Church (and less to the more magical elements of Least’s abilities). She takes readers into Least’s current life, nearer to the end than the beginning, and a threat on her final years cast by the arrival of a dangerous criminal. With these changes come changes to her name, as Least sheds her horrible moniker for the more fitting one of Birdie (or, sometimes, Little Bird), which connotes the free spirit she grows into and the spirits she is in semi-constant contact with.
“The Day of Small Things” shines as a chronicle of Depression-era Appalachia and the coming-of-age of Lane’s protagonist, who starts out with wings clipped and later lets them go free. When danger hits as Birdie grows very old, Lane isn’t quite as skillful at evoking the suspense necessary to warrant our fear that Birdie won’t leave the world on her own terms. But like McCrumb, Lane demonstrates how deeply she feels part of her Appalachian home, how tied she is to the land and the pulsating beats that can’t quite be found elsewhere.
Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at https://www.sarahweinman.com. “Dark Passages” appears monthly at latimes.com/books.