“They say you shouldn’t talk about the old days and how much better everything used to be…” but for Henry Farrell, a small town police officer in Wild Thyme, PA, his old days are not that long gone. They haunt him and make us hope he will find better days again.
Dry Bones in the Valley is Tom Bouman’s first mystery novel, one I hope is the first of many featuring Henry Farrell, whose drive to solve the murders that threaten the peace of his town is leavened by compassion and humanity forged by a crucible of loss, guilt and the memory of how much better everything used to be.
Wild Thyme is a village along the Susquehanna River in northeastern Pennsylvania and lies on top of the Marcellus Shale. Fracking is changing the entire region as some get rich leasing rights to oil companies and some stay poor trying to preserve the land. Old feuds are just a backdrop to a new class of criminals dealing meth and maybe even murder. The people of Wild Thyme, for the most part, are descendants of families who have lived there for generations. They are suspicious of outsiders, whether from oil companies or the government and have little respect for the law or the men who enforce it.
It all begins with a local reprobate getting some buckshot from an old man up in the hills. The old man, Aub, is a loner, isolated, poor and suffering the confusion and forgetfulness of old age. Henry goes up to check out the buckshot victim’s version of events and discovers Aub has been the target of some petty thefts and harassment. But, Aub is more concerned with the body he has found up in the woods above his cabin. It’s been there awhile and with the snow melt, is beginning to decay and draw turkey buzzards.
The investigation leads to another murder and an even older body hidden up in those woods. For Henry, it’s unclear whether the answers can be found in those old family histories or with the meth dealers who are invading the community or perhaps with the fracking company and the avarice that those leases inspire.
Henry’s investigations often lead him into the woods and the environment of Wild Thyme is as much a character of this novel as any person. Bouman’s prose brings it to life with beautiful, yet simple, descriptions that create a powerful sense of place. Reading Dry Bones in the Valley, I could see the steep hills made slippery with mud and snowmelt. I could feel the cold damp of the sloughs and the harsh bite of thorns. It all felt so very familiar because Bouman writes with simple clarity and powerful imagery.
There is this passage at the end of the story that captures, in a way, how Bouman presents profound ideas with simplicity.
I was three or four probably and Ma was giving me a bath in a white plastic tub full of water that had been warming in the sun. Daylilies milled in the ditch like they were waiting for a ride. The road was dirt, still is, and the house is occupied by a new family, with my folks in North Carolina. But I do remember than an electric-blue dragonfly landed on the edge of the white plastic tub, and those daylilies, wow! Orange, and how when I looked up everything was green, green, and big blue sky, and we seemed all of a sudden to have slipped into a slower stream of time.
You don’t get many moments like that, I find. So you have to be open to them, even knowing that you won’t get many, and even knowing that when you remember them it’ll only feel like you’ve lost something important, instead of gained something you can keep.
Wow! How much confidence does it take to write so simply? “Everything was green, green, and big blue sky” There’s no azures, no emeralds. And much more powerful for that, but then we have those daylilies milling in the ditch “like they were waiting for a ride.” That simile is so new and yet perfectly evocative. That is exactly what daylilies are like. Why didn’t I see that before?
Aside from being a policeman, Henry Farrell is a fiddler and I am certain that the Dry Bones in the Valley of the title refers to the old gospel song that many fiddlers would know. There is a quote from Carl Sandburg that opens the novel and removes any trace of doubt. “An old ballad is often like an old silver dagger…” The song is based on Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel prophecies to the bones and they become flesh and life is breathed into them and they are made whole and are blessed as the people of Israel. This is the story of the covenant.
There are the old bones discovered and investigated and as their lives are revealed, they are made whole, but I think the Dry Bones of the Valley may be referring more to Henry who came back to this home of his youth after life had broken him. He was the dry bones who is coming back to life, to this promise of a new home.
Dry Bones in the Valley is an excellent book. I recommend it even to those who generally avoid the mystery genre. The writing is as good as any literary fiction. This book is about far more than solving a few murders. It is about our rural communities being broken by joblessness, poverty and despair. It is about our environment being throttled by extraction industries whose devilish bargains are hard to resist when traditional agriculture and industry have flatlined. It’s about families and how they help and how they hurt each other. And of course, it is about an ordinary man finding his way back to himself,
Dry bones in the valley
Awake and ye shall live
Dry bones in the valley
Awake and ye shall live