In this debut novel, a mystery involving disabled veterans unfolds in a peaceful Ozark setting.
Gulch Fork, the distinctively drawn central locale of this thriller, is “a worn town, a tired town, nestled in a valley of the Boston Mountains” in the Arkansas Ozarks, the kind of quiet, beautiful, rural location where people go when they want a respite from the crime and violence of the outside world. It’s in this well-chosen setting that the tale’s puzzling events transpire: Rob Dean, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD and Agent Orange-caused neuropathy, encounters a string of strange occurrences. Someone tampers with his window air conditioner. Strangers come snooping around his front door. His house is pelted with rocks. He receives threatening phone calls. And he becomes deeply suspicious of Smokey Jones and his wife, Sally, the itinerant couple he first employed for odd jobs out of pity and then partnered with in a cattle-raising operation on a remote property owned by Dean and occupied by fellow Vietnam vet Peter Ness and his wife, Darla. After having met Jones’ extended family one Christmas (“a bunch of hillbillies with a mob mentality”), Dean finds his misgivings only intensifying, and he shares his story with Samantha Caminos, the certified nursing assistant assigned to help him. Smith and Rhodes craft a natural-seeming rapport forming between patient and nurse, and this genuine touch extends to all the work’s characters as the mysteries surrounding Dean (and happening to others as well) steadily deepen and become more complicated. But the book’s most unforgettable player by a wide margin turns out to be the scoundrel and scam artist Jones, shifty, charismatic, “podgy in girth and his head bald as a stone,” a Flannery O’Connor-style grifter let loose among the simple, virtuous inhabitants of a Fannie Flagg novel. The authors fill in the back stories of their various characters with frequent and not always smoothly used flashbacks. But the storytelling remains so genial that most readers should happily press on to the end.
A satisfyingly chatty and informative small-town thriller.