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Tom Chaney: R754: Avenging Mountain Murder Cases

Of Writers and Their Books No. R754: First appeared 18 March 2007. Review of The Sheriffs' Murder Cases
The next earlier Tom Chaney column 7: Tom Chaney: R753: Review of book - Exiled

By Tom Chaney

Avenging Mountain Murder Cases

From time to time folks send me new books. Usually the culprit is an author or a publisher, sometimes a friend, thinking I might write a column and open up new green fields of sales.

Generally I don't.

Over the past two years and one hundred or more pieces, I have developed a philosophy about this space.

I try to write for myself as friend. Nothing is more damaging to a friendly relationship than to try to introduce someone you don't like to someone you care about. I have tried to say generally good things about the books I share. I don't want to waste my time or my friend's time with badly written books. Durned if I want to take along a smelly guest to another person's table for dinner!

But there are exceptions. I have just read a first book by a new Kentucky novelist which surprised me a right smart.

When I picked up The Sheriffs' Murder Cases by Justin Turner [Chestnut Hill Publishing, Louisville, 2006] I aimed to please a friend who sent it by reading a couple of pages then conveniently laying the book aside with excuses.

I could scarcely put the book down for sleep.

Turner, a retired professor of International Relations at Middle Tennessee State University and a native of Floyd County grabbed me by the heel and would not let go -- worse than a little fice dog.

This is the first of a projected trilogy set in the fictional county of Chinoe in the eastern Kentucky mountains. Jake Herald left the mountains for college at Valparaiso University and medical school at the University of Louisville. He left medical school one year early to fight in the Great War in Europe.

Herald returns, wounded, from the war to find that a bootlegger has murdered a young school teacher with whom he served in Europe.

Jake also finds that two sheriffs have been murdered. With his family connections, he secures appointment as a "temporary" sheriff for the express purpose of punishing his friend's killer. One of the characters says, "Anybody with a brain would have known better than to kill a friend of Jake Herald's."

His wily mountain skills honed by the war, Jake brings a measure of justice to the county and continues as sheriff. The voice of the novel is a much older Jake who has remained as high sheriff or deputy sheriff for twenty-five years.

In some circles it is fashionable to criticize an author as being a local colorist. But it is not the use of local color that should be criticized; it is the skill with which a writer manipulates language, character, plot, and setting. When I am confronted with a new regional writer, my antenna goes up for one-dimensional characters speaking a terrible dialect in a cloying countryside.

Not so with Mr. Turner.

He recognizes the unique vocabulary of his setting and provides discrete aids to the reader to make sense out of unfamiliar terms.

Turner also has a facility for setting and for movement through that setting which makes visualization of the mountainous county quite vivid with none of the cloying vagueness which many a lesser writer attempts to inflict upon the reader.

Sure, there are flaws. The plot depends on timing which is a little too precise. Train schedules work almost too well. Sometimes the county seems as big as all of Texas. But these blemishes don't mar the total picture.

The characters are interesting -- even the mean ones. The language is elegant.

I therefore will issue a return invitation to Justin Turner. I reckon he'd be good company for any friend's table.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-03-18 06:15:43
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