Fritsch’s (Promised Valley Peace, 2013, etc.) historical legal drama reveals the seamy underbelly of a small Illinois farming community.
Jonah Neumeyer, a young gay lawyer living in Chicago in 1977, was 6 years old in 1955 when he witnessed a traumatic house fire in Revere, Illinois, that apparently killed two elderly men. He’s remembered a comment from one of the onlookers ever since, as the charred bodies were brought out by the firemen: “Those two old queers got what they deserved.” Now Jonah has returned to his hometown to find out if that fire was set intentionally. The first step is to speak with the recently widowed Elizabeth Daleiden, who lived in the neighboring house—and who inherited the men’s farm after their deaths. Jonah believes that Elizabeth is hiding something, but he doesn’t anticipate that their conversation will get back to Elizabeth’s mother-in-law, Olivia Daleiden, a nasty, vengeful woman who accuses her of murdering not only the two men, but also Elizabeth’s father in 1950. Somewhat improbably, the Concord County state’s attorney, Tanner Howland, smells the potential for a big-trial victory that will propel his political ambitions; he successfully obtains indictments, and the stage is set for Elizabeth’s takedown. As the unorthodox trial proceeds—with witnesses allowed to expound endlessly without objection—it reveals a veritable Peyton Place of back stories, in which everyone in Revere seems to have connections with everyone else. Fritsch saddles himself with an ambitious task by jumping into the well-trod territory of courtroom dramas. However, the trial is only a vehicle for his examination of small-town prejudices, especially regarding gays and lesbians. He kindly provides a list of characters upfront so readers can keep track of them all, and some of the walk-on players are engaging. That said, most of the real character development is limited to Jonah and Elizabeth; the rest of the players are mostly just divided into good guys or bad. Still, the action moves quickly, and there are enough surprises to keep readers hooked to the end.
Big-city life has nothing on small-town shenanigans in this often enjoyable read with a serious message.