Nora Bonesteel’s first case finds the seer (The Songcatcher, 2001, etc.) in full possession of her equivocal gift at age 12.
After the police in tiny Pound, Va., arrest coal miner Pollock Morton’s wife and daughter for beating him to death, they turn the wife loose and charge the daughter with murder. There’s no obvious reason why a schoolteacher like Erma Morton would have capped an argument over her curfew by bashing her father’s head in, but the testimony of a neighbor who overheard the quarrel and was turned away from the door until it was too late to save the victim is damning. All this intrigue, however, mostly bubbles in the background, for McCrumb (St. Dale, 2005, etc.) is less interested in what really happened than in what the rapacious journalists who’ve converged on the little town are making of the case. Burned-out reporter Henry Jernigan, haunted by the ghost of a girl he met a decade ago while living in Japan, and sob sister Rose Hanelon, haunted by her doomed romance with a callow aviator, battle in vain for face time with the defendant, whose slick brother Harley has sold her story to the Hearst syndicate in return for the money to mount her defense. Small-town young cub Carl Jennings, chasing his first big story, sees and resists the rush to turn Erma into a persecuted innocent but finds that the bare truth doesn’t make an equally compelling story. So he brings in his cousin Nora to help out his landlady—and, he hopes, use her second sight to give him a decisive edge over his more seasoned and ruthless competitors.
Though the fact-based story is set in 1935, the pressures sound very contemporary, and that’s McCrumb’s point. This time, though, the modern parallels, which tell you pretty much what you already knew about crime, fame and the media, are the weakest link in this lustrous chain.