Talking Location With author Charlotte Rixon – Newcastle
Novel set in Pennsylvania (US Rural Noir plus Author Q and A)
6th April 2015
Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman – novel set in Pennsylvania.
A thriller set in fictional Wild Thyme, a remote township in rural North East Pennsylvania, Dry Bones in the Valley is a stunning debut novel from Tom Bouman who lives in the area, and whose intimate knowldege of both it and its ways is very clear. It is a well worked and very dark detective novel with more than its fair share of of blood and brutality.
The ‘hero’ is the local policeman, Henry Farrell, who fits flawlessly into the stereotype of the troubled loner. He is a widower who fought with the US in Somalia, and bears some of the scars. He married out West, his wife died poisoned by the effects of gas exploration and fracking – and he moved to rural Pennsylvania for an easy and peaceful life. But his peace is shattered. He is untiring and relentless (one could say obsessive) in his investigation into the murder of both a ‘John Doe’ (whose body is revealed high up on a ridge as winter snows retreat in the countryside) and of his own deputy – clubbed and gunned down in the early stages of the investigation. The ‘John Doe’ is discovered on the land of an old, and quite possibly mad, recluse who becomes the initial suspect.
The story is a complex one set amongst the somewhat strange and seemingly inbred families of the area. Wild Thyme is a community bitterly divided by the arrival of fracking and gas exploration – the great wealth it could bring, and the great changes to lifestyles that have spanned generations that could also materialise (the subject, of course, brings back memories for Farrell). Small bundles of land need to be tied together to be of a large enough size to sell to the developers – and there are tensions amongst adjoining landowners as they work out who is prepared to deal with whom (and who is prepared to shaft whom…). The nasty side of the community is very much to the fore. And it’s not just gas exploration and fracking that are moving East. With them (and the money they bring) come drug dealers and other undesirables. Dry Bones in the Valley is a very rough and a very tough novel set in idyllic countryside. Local families morph from existing as subsistence level farmers to being part of a much bigger plot. Poverty is displaced by some of the ‘advantages’ of new found wealth.
Much of the book is set in the woodlands and ridges of Wild Thyme, as Farrell tracks down the killer. Bouman’s obvious knowledge and love of the countryside and its ways makes for the painting of a very convincing picture of life in the area – from some somewhat macabre details of deer hunting to how to remain hidden and unobserved in pursuit of your quarry. It is a story well observed and beautifully told.
I do not imagine that it is Bouman’s intention for this to be the only Henry Farrell detective novel. In Farrell, he has created a character who people will want to see more of. He is complex, driven (don’t think he sleeps throughout the book…), damaged – and actually pretty believable.
Tony for the TripFiction team
Tom Bouman very kindly agreed to answer some questions we put to him:
TF: Is fictional Wild Thyme based on a real place or a series of real places? It rings very true as a location.
TB: The landscape is real. I like to think of Wild Thyme as northeastern Pennsylvania seen through a distorted mirror. And the distorting force is fiction itself—crime fiction especially lays claim to something we might term realism, while at the same time it amplifies and even exaggerates the elements of that reality that place the work within the genre.
TF: In Henry Farrell you have created a classic troubled loner detective. We can identify with him (imperfect as he is) right from the outset. Was he a difficult character to come up with?
TB: Henry Farrell first spoke to me one early morning, and from there it was not difficult to give him life. I recall seeing Haruki Murakami read once, and he was asked how he started writing. He answered that he was at a baseball game, and saw a player hit a triple, and from there, he knew that he could write fiction. Sometimes it is like a switch being turned on, and that’s how it was for me.
Implicit in your question, I think, is the notion that Henry Farrell is not unique in his troubled loner-dome. People, the late great P.D. James among them, have called for happy, well-adjusted detectives to offset the welter of melancholy cops, etc. I understand that point of view. To that I’d only say that as a fairly lachrymose person myself, I probably couldn’t have written Henry Farrell any other way.
TF: You clearly know rural North East Pennsylvania very well. I gather you were brought up in the area, lived several years in New York – and then moved back. What pulled you back?
TB: Yes, I grew up on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, and I loved it. That’s why New York never felt quite right to me, with its endless bids for one’s attention, money, and time. My wife and I had a baby girl, and New York just stopped making sense.
TF: Fracking and gas exploration (as you may know) is a hot political subject right now in the UK. We are told we are putting in many of the safeguards that were not present in the US, but there is skepticism. I wonder if in any way your interest in the subject (and your implied criticism of it) is based on personal experience?
TB: Absolutely. A few years back, all of a sudden, the quiet, overlooked place where I grew up and still considered home was crawling with the natural gas industry. It is one of the Marcellus Shale sweet spots. Unconventional natural gas extraction is a worrisome enterprise that has also done some good. I can’t be entirely critical of it, and yet it is a fossil fuel the environmental and economic benefits of which have been overstated. We should be looking for different solutions.
TF: Many of the families that inhabit Wild Thyme are pretty unpleasant. A rough lot with inbreeding and nasty traits. I wonder to what extent such people actually exist in the area – or how much they come from your imagination?
TB: Oh, come on, now. They’re not that nasty! Certainly there’s no inbreeding. But to answer your question, yes and no, and see my answer to your first question. I think the thing to focus on is not the nastiness, which comes from external forces like the drug trade, addiction, and poverty. Those forces have universal, often inescapable effects. Instead, when I was writing the outlaw characters, I thought about the extent to which certain people in rural America have little interest in what mainstream culture has to offer, and very deliberately and successfully live outside of it. I have friends who meet that description proudly. And I’m a bit sympathetic to that viewpoint myself.
TF: You know a great deal about the folklore of the area – from stalking and hunting through to an encyclopedic knowledge of the types of guns and ammunition used. Was this learnt for the book – or is it part of ‘you’?
TB: A bit of both. I started hunting a few years back, before I wrote the book. And the season I most regularly had time to hunt was the flintlock one, in January, because I had a break from work between Christmas and New Year’s Day. So I became familiar with a fairly arcane hunting practice early on. One of my neighbors up in northeastern Pennsylvania is my hunting mentor, and some of Henry’s philosophy about hunting and humanity’s place in the natural world came from listening to him.
TF: ‘Dry Bones in the Valley’ has been described as Rural Noir or Country Noir. Are these genres in which you consciously decided to create a book – or did it just come out that way?
TB: Creation is accretion, at least in my case. What do you get when you combine a love of mystery novels and fiction that takes place in rural settings? Something like Dry Bones, I guess. What some people acknowledge as a kind of subgenre, “Rural Noir,” others have rejected, saying that it’s just fiction or just crime fiction. I didn’t consciously start out to write in that subgenre—I just wanted to write a mystery, and a mystery has different plot obligations from noir. It was perhaps inevitable that I’d end up in the Rural Noir camp notwithstanding. Happy to be there, don’t particularly care either way about the label.
TF: Henry Farrell is (I hope) not a one off star of ‘Dry Bones in the Valley’. He is crying out to be the star of a series of books… What plans do you have for him in the future?
TB: Oh, thanks awfully. I’m working on the sequel right now, a summertime book, and have a third under contract too. Henry will find a bit of romance and happiness, I’m hoping, between the beatings, ATV chases, and murders.
Thank you to Tom for taking part in this Q and A session. You can follow Tom on Twitter