Saturday, January 7, 2017

Close to the Broken Hearted

Close to the Broken Hearted
by Michael Hiebert
Recommended Ages: 15+

In the second "Alvin, Alabama" mystery, Leah Teal's dual careers as a police detective and a single mom collide once again. On one hand, she uses her detective skills to check the background of family on her late husband Billy's side, whom she never knew existed until a woman claiming to be Billy's sister shows up in town. On the other hand, daughter Carry, 15, and son Abe, 12, are in the car with her during her climactic race to the scene where a fragile young woman and her three-month-old baby are at the mercy of an ax-wielding psychopath. But that's at the end of the story. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

In the first case, the main thing standing between Leah and clarity is her own grief over Billy's death 10 years earlier in a car accident. It isn't so much that she has gotten stuck between the denial and anger stages of grief, as that she has put off the whole process by packing away every picture of her dead husband, and refusing even to confront his memory. Meanwhile, Abe is so desperate to know more about the father he doesn't remember, he carries in his wallet a photo of Billy that he stole from a box in his mother's bedroom closet. His questions about the grandparents and aunt he never knew he had become so persistent that Leah would have good reason to worry about Abe taking matters into his own hands. After all, Abe is also staking out his - and her - lead suspect in the other case, the one that ends with an ax-wielding psychopath battering down another single mom's front door.

I mentioned Sylvie Carson is fragile. You would be, too, if you lived every day with the memory of seeing your baby brother blown to smithereens in front of you when you were five years old. The man responsible for doing it, a sometime preacher with a hair-trigger temper and designs on the Carson family farm, has just gotten out of prison and moved back to Alvin. The timing coincides perfectly with a series of incidents in which it seems someone is trying to drive Sylvie crazy - ranging from rearranging the junk in her back yard to killing her cat with rat poison. No one else on the Alvin police force takes Sylvie's constant alarms seriously. But something about Preacher Eli's show of repentance smells off to Leah, and as she digs deeper, she begins to doubt the findings of the original investigations of the deaths of both Sylvie's parents - one a suicide, the other a murder for which a man went to the electric chair. But the truth is... Well, you didn't think it was going to be that easy, did you?

Like the previous installment in this series, Dream with Little Angels, this book is a more or less equal mixture of crime thriller and family drama, told partly in Abe's precocious, picaresque first-person voice, and partly in third-person narrative that mostly follows Leah's movements, and sometimes Sylvie's. It is a mystery in which an obvious suspect obscures a slightly less obvious suspect only for a while; but even after whodunit becomes completely clear, the thrills and chills have only just begun. Style-wise, the book is written with attractive clarity and economical lyricism, with a mild tendency to let grammatically iffy southernisms slip in even in the third-person passages.

Apparently, the ruse works, because in spite of being written by a present-day Canadian author, the book fills the senses with a vivid impression of its 1988, southern-U.S. setting. Not that I've spent much time in Alabama, to judge. But I've read books written by residents of my own county in Missouri whose characters sounded less convincingly like they belonged here, and whose scenery did not come to life in the imagination in as much detail. Even though Alvin isn't a real place on the map of Alabama, it lives in the hearts and minds of anyone who has read Hiebert's work. That work, by the way, includes two more Alvin, Ala. sequels - A Thorn Among the Lilies and Sticks and Stones - the serialized thriller Rose Garden Arena Incident, the stand-alone novels Dolls and Darkstone, and the short story collection Sometimes the Angels Weep.

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