The Last Death of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames
There’s something about a village. . . Growing up in a satellite town to a city, I had the best of both worlds with a small tight-knit community where everyone knew everyone else, but with the shops and services supplied by what was left of trade after the War in the wreckage of the city. In fact, truth be told, the city was really just a town with so many of the men killed or wounded and forced to stay at home. Until the fifties really kicked into gear, the streets were not that busy at either end of the social setting. After a relatively brief period living in a city, I was off out into the countryside to a real village. It was a welcome relief even though I was, by definition, an outsider. Ironically, I’m still an outsider now that I’ve moved into a different cityscape. Perhaps I was designed to be a hermit.
In part, I think that’s why I like Samuel Craddock, the hero of The Last Death of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames (Seventh Street Books, 2014). Although he did a stint in the Army, he had the chance to stay in his small Texan community. Naturally gregarious and blessed with both intelligence and common sense (a rare combination), he’s now retired from his role as “lawman” to the county. That doesn’t mean the county has given up on him. His replacement is a drunken lush who spends too long inside bottles of different shapes and sizes to be any use as a human being, let alone a law enforcement officer. So when there are problems, people just happen to remember Samuel’s telephone number and call him up. Like the local sawbones, that means he’s been a continual presence in people’s lives, watching them born and grow up through the generations. If the town is a safe place to live, it’s in no small way due to his benign approach to defusing situations and easing people into less confrontational ways. In real and not just idiomatic terms, such men are the salt of the earth.
When setting out to write a mystery, there’s always a balance to be struck between the nature of the puzzle woven through the plot and the mechanics of characters and settings. Some authors delight in creating the problem to be solved. Everything else is set dressing and actors moving around as needed in order to get all the clues out there for us armchair detectives to delight in spotting. When at their best, these authors dazzle us with the intricacies of their inventiveness. When off their game, we watch cardboard characters moving through generic settings of little or no substance or importance. At the other end of the scale, the setting is one of the characters and the nature of the puzzle to solve arises out of the characters and their interaction. When this works well, as here, our detective moves through the town he knows so well, yet still finds so much he does not know. He watched these children grow up. There were many things he saw but, with an adult’s sensibilities, he didn’t always get the meaning quite right. Yes, he was keeping other people’s secrets, but not quite what they wanted to hide. It’s actually quite ironic. With all his wisdom and, at times, he’s pretty wise, he’s not nearly as good at judging people as he thinks he is. Of course, the people who live in small towns all know each other and therefore learn to hide their secrets well. Those who fail, tend to leave with their reputations shredded. So it’s not his fault that he can’t immediately see through the deceptions. People see what they want to see. Indeed, his life would be very uncomfortable as a law enforcement officer if no-one could keep their secrets from him. Everyone’s entitled to their privacy. Whether they’ve been faithful or secretly killing people, that’s their business. Well, most of the time. Until they cheat on someone who takes resentment to a new level of destructiveness or they kill someone he can’t ignore.
This time around, we’ve got two bodies, a nasty beating, a shooting, a potentially dangerous Hells Angel biker group, and a wacky cult in Waco (where else?). It’s a delightful conflation of criminal behavior for Sam to investigate while worrying about his knee, taking great care of his cattle, and reaching the right level of social interaction with the women on the periphery of his life. I may never have visited Texas, but I’ve met people like Sam and many of those who live alongside him in this community. They are the same basic characters who lived in the village where I made my home, agonised whether their cricket team had won over the weekend, and gossiped outside the schools, in the shops and in the pubs. So if you like meeting people and learning more about them, this is the book for you. Of course it matters whodunnit and why, but it’s equally important to know if the killer was married and had children. Knowing what happened to them after the killer was arrested is part of the package when you read books like this — as is knowing which secrets to keep and which to leave unanswered. In short, The Last Death of Jack Harbin is a great book which just happens to be a mystery! Surprisingly, even the title turns out to be completely appropriate.
For the review of another novel by Terry Shames, see A Killing at Cotton Hill.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.