Hell With the Lid Blown Off by Donis Casey
As I was thinking about this review, I began to wonder whether “folksy” had pejorative connotations. At a literal level, I suppose the word means that something is characteristic of the life of common folk. The problem is that “common folk” are often the victims of class prejudice. Their interests and lifestyles are thought simple in the less flattering sense of the word. They are considered one of the downtrodden masses, often unimaginative, less well educated, and suffering a life deprived of many features of life we might take for granted. They will be patronised or treated with some degree of contempt. In America, they might be thought scroungers and ne’er-do-wells. In Britain, we might have tried to redeem them by calling them the “salt of the earth”, but that’s hardly the most flattering way of describing their life on the land. Perhaps it would be safer to talk about folk or oral histories which take the stories of the common or ordinary people as the point of view. History is too often presented to us as a top-down phenomenon which tends to marginalise or ignore the situation of the majority of people at the bottom of the social heap. Many prefer to talk of prime ministers and presidents as the exemplars of success rather than individuals who are poor and disadvantaged. Indeed, if too much attention was to be focused on these people, there might be stirrings of sympathy and some pressure to ameliorate their situation, and that would never do. Redistribution is the enemy of the 1% who control most of the wealth in all societies.
Hell With the Lid Blown Off by Donis Casey (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) brings us another in the series featuring the Tucker family in rural Oklahoma. The time is 1916 and the community of Boynton is about to be hit by a major storm and big twister. While we wait for The Big Blow (the best of the descriptions of a major hurricane by Joe R Lansdale), we get a slice of life on both sides of metaphorical tracks. On the majority side, the God-fearing, self-satisfied majority do their best to maintain their values against the hardship of their lives. On the other side are the Beldons, a family whose existence is a blight on the lives of the majority. The worst “offender” is Jubal, the eldest son and not only a physical bully, but also a blackmailer when he identifies facts those at risk would prefer untold. However, when the facts are missing, he’s not averse to rumour-seeding falsehoods which the self-righteous majority often pick up and treat as true. Either way, Jubal is actively disliked and avoided whenever possible. So few are unhappy when his body turns up in a field after the twister has barrelled its way though the outskirts of this tiny township. There’s just one problem. He may actually have been dead before the wind picked him up and dropped him again.
A combination of individuals then investigates this death and there’s something of a conclusion about which of the better citizens might have done it. However, because this is a period piece, the judge who travels to the township and holds a form of inquiry is unable to say with any degree of certainty whether this was a murder and, if it was a suspicious death which might give rise to the possibility of criminal charges, who might actually be charged. As one might therefore expect, none of the God-fearing are charged and the remaining Beldons end up moving away. Hence, this is not exactly a conventional historical mystery. Although some of what occurs in the first two-thirds of the book is relevant to investigating the death, what we really have is a slice of Oklahoma life circa 1916 with recipes for the best dishes included in the appendix. So as I began by saying, this is somewhat folksy in the more literal sense of the word. Had there been hills, we might have met Billies. As it is, this is hardscrabble with the storm elevating the usual struggle to moderately epic proportions. The first third of the book was not so interesting to me—if you wish, you can put this down to my being British and therefore less caught up in the struggles of the rural poor of South Central America. It rehashes many of the conventions of life at that time with the bad apple family and their appalling sons terrorising the younger women and many of the men in their neighbourhood. I’ve read better descriptions of storms and tornadoes, so this section of the book was merely adequate. However, it does come to life when the multiple points of view begin piecing together what happened before the storm hit. So taken overall, Hell With the Lid Blown Off will appeal to the readers of folk history with a mystery thrown in at the end to keep people like me happy. The result is marginally better than average.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.