Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter: Sharyn McCrumb

This is the second book in Sharyn McCrumb's Appalachian Ballad series. Both this story and the first one in the series feature Sheriff Spencer Arrowood of Wake County, Tennessee, but he doesn't do a lot of investigating. I think it is typical of the series that he does not play a major role in the stories.

In this book, the story centers around the wife of the church pastor, Laura Bruce, of the small town of Dark Hollow. Her husband is serving as an Army chaplain in the Middle East, ministering to troops left behind after the Gulf War. Laura is in her late thirties, only married to her husband for one year, and pregnant. And she is unprepared for the additional responsibilities she is expected to take on in the church with her husband gone.
"It was only later that she realized that marriage to Will entailed greater than ordinary obligations: He came with the spiritual baggage of two hundred souls of Shiloh Baptist Church. She told herself that she would begin by going through the motions as pastor's wife, hoping that the emotions would eventually follow. So far, they had not."
One night Sheriff Arrowood calls Laura, requesting that she come to the home of a family that attends the church. It is the site of a multiple homicide. The parents and one child have been murdered by the oldest son, who then killed himself, and only the two teenage children, Maggie and Mark Underhill, have survived. They were at the high school practicing for a play and came home to find the rest of the family dead. Laura is called in to provide support since her husband is not available.

It is hard to describe the dynamics going on in this story. Laura agrees to be the surviving teenager's guardian for a few months until Mark turns 18, so that they can finish the school year and live in their house. The evidence supports the belief that the oldest son was the killer, but the children left behind are acting strangely. They are old enough to take care of themselves, but they could benefit from some occasional checking in. For a while the sheriff and Laura both lose touch with them. The situation grows tense and suspenseful.

Environmental issues in the area are addressed. A subplot focuses on an older man who finds that he is dying of cancer. He traces his illness to to the pollution of the Little Dove River, caused by a paper mill in North Carolina.

Laura also visits with a older woman, Nora Bonesteel, who is reputed to have "the sight" and often knows about occurrences before they happen. This character does provide a good view of the community and the history of the area, and the supernatural element does not overshadow the plot.

This novel is an excellent depiction of the Appalachian area in eastern Tennessee. The story is dark and unsettling. Sharyn McCrumb's writing is beautiful. I don't know if I was more in tune with McCrumb's style of writing now or if the story improved over the first in the series, but I did like this one much better than If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O.


Publisher:  Onyx, 1993. Orig. pub. 1992.
Length:      381 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Appalachian Ballad series, #2
Setting:      Tennessee
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     On my TBR piles since 2015. 


Sue said...

You have sent me straight to the bookshelves to pull out The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter for a reread. I admire Sharyn McCrumb's writing, especially the novels set in the Appalachian mountains; I also have a copy of her first ever collection of short fiction, Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Looking at the blurb for Foggy Mountain Breakdown, the author says: "My books are like Appalachian quilts...I take brightly coloured scraps of legends, ballads, fragments of rural life and local tragedy and I piece them together into a complex whole that tells not only a story, but also a deeper truth..."

Thank you for the review.

TracyK said...

Sue, I am glad to hear more about Sharyn McCrumb's writing. I have more of her books on my shelves and plan to read them. And I will watch out for that short story collection.

Margot Kinberg said...

I heard this was a good one, Tracy, but I haven't read it (yet). The setting seems to be really right for this sort of story, and it sounds as though the characters are interesting and sometimes unusual. That can work well in a story when it's done right. I'm glad you thought it was in this case.

TracyK said...

Margot, I like unusual mysteries, and it helps a lot when the writing is good and the plot moves along. I look forward to trying another one of these to see how it is.

Marty said...

McCrumb also wrote a series of more conventional mysteries featuring a forensic anthropologist. Not TOO conventional though. The heroine was not infallible and the books had a sort of wryly humorous attitude toward her. I remember at least one set in Appalachia but others were in Britain.

TracyK said...

Marty, I do have a few of the books in the Elizabeth MacPherson series, and I plan to read the first one (and more if I like it). I don't know why I have put that off for so long. I have also read the two Jay Omega books (Bimbos of the Death Sun and Zombies of the Gene Pool), which I also enjoyed.

Clothes in Books said...

I read several of her books a while back, and certainly bought them at first for those wonderful titles! I do remember this one, particularly the pollution subplot.

TracyK said...

Moira, having read this book and liking the author's writing style, I am curious if I will like the Elizabeth MacPherson series, and luckily I have some of that series (probably because some of them have skulls on the cover).

col2910 said...

A bit undecided on this one really. I quite like the sound of it, but I'm not hurting for books. If I bought it would I read it? I have "similar" books on the shelves unread. Similar in respect of setting and rural community and some sort of tragedy or conflict at it's heart. I think that's a question I need to ask myself before I add anything else to my collection. (I must have woken up this morning feeling guilty!)

TracyK said...

I have had the same experience, Col. I look at my shelves and I see books that are worthy to read, but not calling to me. More and more I try to wait to buy books until I plan to read them. Doesn't always work though.