WINTER’S BONE by Daniel Woodrell

This week’s much-loved crime fiction is a novel that Irish academic and crime writer Rob Kitchin loves, and he’s shared it here because Maxine commented on his review that she loved the book as well.

A UK cover of the novel

A UK cover of the novel

Ree Dolly is sixteen and old beyond her years, living a hard life trying to make ends meet in a beat up house, deep in the rural Ozarks of Missouri, where every neighbour within thirty miles is also some kind of relative who live by their own code. Her father comes and goes, her mother has slipped into her own hazy world, and her two younger brothers aren’t yet old enough to look after themselves. Not long after her father wanders out to spend a few days doing who knows what, a local deputy comes to the house and tells her that if he doesn’t show up for a court date in a couple of days time the rest of the family will be turned out to fend for themselves and the property handed over to the bail bond company. Determined that his won’t happen she sets out to try and hunt him down, only her suspicious, clannish, extended family seem equally as determined to thwart her.

WINTER’S BONE is a powerful tale, exquisitely told. Woodrell expertly immerses the reader in the rural, clannish society of the Ozarks, creating a multi-textured sense of place populated by authentic familial and social relations. And immersion is the right word; one doesn’t simply read a description of Ree’s world, one is plunged into it, living it with her, experiencing all her anxieties and frustrations. The characterization is excellent and Ree and her close and extended family are full, complex characters which radiate emotional depth and whose interactions and dialogue resonate true. Whilst the story is sombre and bleak, it also has hope, and it quickly hooks the reader in, with the narrative taut and tense, and the prose beautiful and lyrical. Indeed, one of the strengths of Woodrell’s writing is that it is so rich and yet so economical. I sense that WINTER’S BONE is a story that will stay with me for a long time and I very much look forward to reading more of Woodrell’s work.

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Here’s a part of Maxine’s own review of the book

…I kept wondering why Ree let herself suffer so. We know she dreams of joining the US Army, but why does she stay in this closed community – closed to the assistance of education, medicine and the law? I was answered by the end of the book, when Ree’s Greek tragedy is played out: like Frodo, she has played by the only rules that can matter for her, and she receives her reward. A desperately sad book, brilliantly conveying the histories and culture of these people, and one that won’t leave you in a hurry.

Rob Kitchin’s review was first published at The View From the Blue House, The quote of Maxine’s is taken from her blog archive.

Book Details:

author: Daniel Woodrell
original language: English
publication date (UK): 2006 [Sceptre]

Contributor Details:

Rob Kitchin is Director of a social sciences Institute at an Irish university, has published 21 academic books (soon to be 22), a 12 volume encyclopaedia, 3 crime novels and a collection of short stories. He discusses his crime reading and shares his short fiction at The View From The Blue House


BURIAL OF THE DEAD by Michael Hogan

BurialOfTheDeadMichael Hogan’s BURIAL OF THE DEAD is one of those rare books that gets almost everything right. I discovered it a few years ago, and it has become one of my most-recommended books. I should mention that I am an editor at an independent publishing house, but I was not the editor who originally found and published BURIAL OF THE DEAD. But I wish I had been.

I often think about, and sometimes blog about, the constraints of genre fiction. On the one hand, we (publishers, that is) like books that fit into a formula that is easily marketable. On the other hand, editors (like me) seek books that push the limits of the genre, that seek to do something new, different, bold, brave, exciting. It’s a tough balance to pull off, and it requires a special writer.

BURIAL OF THE DEAD is such a book. Fans of the genre can be assured that it falls clearly into the “mystery” category. Every single page, chapter, and part of this book is suffused with mystery. For every question that is answered, doubts are raised and new questions arise. We almost never know who’s lying, who’s telling the truth, and who’s allied with whom. When those questions are answered, the only result is more mystery as the reader must adjust everything s/he thought s/he knew.

The plot is, on the surface, quite simple. A wealthy older woman, owner of a successful funeral home and rich in her own right, has died. Was it suicide, or was she killed? Throughout the pages of BURIAL OF THE DEAD, we see a parade of characters, all of whom stand to benefit in some way by the woman’s death. There’s her long-lost great niece; her late husband’s business partner; various employees; and various policemen and politicos, all of whom have a stake in finding out what really happened, or in trying to hide the truth. Each chapter mystifies as much as it enlightens, and the result is a book that grabs you and won’t let you go, as layers upon layers are peeled back and revealed.

The setting is Connecticut, which is deconstructed in a rather alarming and brilliant way throughout. We’re treated to a slice of life in which every character is somehow linked to other characters in sometimes subtle and always mysterious ways. Many books, I think, can be lifted from their setting and plopped down somewhere else with little damage to the story, but I don’t think that’s the case here, which is testimony to the author’s abilities as a writer and social observer.

Of course, the book is not perfect. It sometimes falls into the “trying too hard to be literary” category, and occasionally feels self-indulgent. But these are minor quibbles.

I do not exaggerate when I say that BURIAL OF THE DEAD is one of the most provocative, intense, mysterious books I have read in the last decade. In its pages the author has perfected the art of deceit: staying three or four steps ahead of the reader at every turn. I can’t remember the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed being so thoroughly deceived.

A version of this essay was published at The Rogue Reader earlier this year (reproduced with the permission of the content owner)

Book Details:

author: Michael Hogan (learn more at The Rogue Reader)
original language: English
publication date (UK): Minotaur books, 2008

Contributor Details:

Agatho is the pseudonym of someone working in the publishing industry who blogs at Mysterious Matters: Mystery Publishing Demysitfied and offers genuine insight into the ever-changing publishing world. I find it a fascinating blog as a mere reader, I imagine it’s a must read for any author (hopeful or otherwise).