Book Review: Willnot by James Sallis

James Sallis
Bloomsbury, June 2016
ISBN: 978-1-63286-452-9

Although I had heard very fine things about this author’s work, it has [obviously] taken me much too long to catch up to him, but fortunately I have now corrected that oversight.  His newest book, Willnot, is written in what has been described as his “inimitably spare style” and “haunting and immensely readable,” and I found it undeniably very enjoyable.

From the publisher:  In the woods outside the town of Willnot, the remains of several people have suddenly been discovered, unnerving the community and unsettling Dr. Lamar Hale, the town’s all-purpose general practitioner, surgeon, and town conscience.  At the same time, Bobby Lowndes – – his military records disappeared, being followed by the FBI – – mysteriously reappears in his hometown, at Hale’s door. Over the ensuing months, the daily dramas Hale faces as he tends to his town and to his partner, Richard, collide with the inexplicable vagaries of life in Willnot.  And when a gunshot aimed at Lowndes critically wounds Richard, Hale’s world is truly upended.

The reader is told of the discovery of the dead bodies in the opening sentence:  “We found the bodies two miles outside town, near the old gravel pit.”  We are likewise introduced to Bobby only a few pages later.  We are told [p.o.v. is that of Dr. Lamar Hale] that he was only sixteen when “he wound up at the wrong end of a prank gone horribly south.  Left town on the school’s band bus for a football game twenty miles away, came back six days after in an ambulance and a coma.  I’d taken care of him for close to a year, touch and go at first, then the long plateau and rehab.  One of those strange mirrors life can throw up to you.”  When asked by the Sheriff what he thinks of what they have found, his reply is “I think we found a hole in the ground with bodies in it.  There’s not a lot more to be thought at this point, rationally.”

A second story line has to do with another of Lamar’s patients of many years, Stephen, now 23.  “When he was eighteen, his parents and sister died in a car crash, hit and run.  He was supposed to have been in the car as well but had begged off. Over the next couple of years we watched Stephen pass from wanting to find the person responsible, to believing that the crash was intentional, not an accident at all but willful murder.  ‘The boy’s gone gumshoe, as Richard said.’ ”  A little later, the sheriff asks him “You ever figure out why so many kooks wind up living here?  His response:  We are, after all, a town rich with uncommon history.”

I found the writing absolutely wonderful, too many instances to recount here, but e.g., at the hospital, a colleague tells him, “much of the time we don’t help them live longer or better, we only change the way they die.”

I plan to catch up on Mr. Sallis’ prior novels; this one is, obviously, recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2018.

Book Review: Holy Smoke by Frederick Ramsay

Holy SmokeHoly Smoke
A Jerusalem Mystery
Frederick Ramsay
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2013
ISBN No. 978-1-46420-092-2
Trade Paperback

Ramsay‘s latest novel takes the reader to Jerusalem in the year 29 C. E.  A badly scorched body is discovered behind the veil of the Holy of Holies.  The Holy of Holies is the Temple’s inner sanctum and a sacred place for the Jews.  Only the High Priest may enter and only once a year on the Day of Atonement.

The body is discovered when a cord is sticking out from the veil of the Holy of Holies.  It had been discussed that a cord should be tied around the high priest’s ankle when he entered on the Day of Atonement but this had never been put into practice.  The first item of concern is how to get the body or whatever is attached to the cord out from behind the veil.  This is finally accomplished and the body attached to the cord is unrecognizable due to severe burns.

Gamaliel, the Rabban of the Sanhedrin is the ranking rabbi in all of Judea.  Gamaliel is drawn into solving this mystery but before he reaches a conclusion, another burnt body is found. This time the body is in a shop and not the temple.  Gamaliel gets Loukas, the physician, to join him in trying to figure out whose body was burned and left in the Temple and why.

It is no big surprise to find out that the murders are a part of a war beginning between the countries that supply hul gil to the shops in Jerusalem.  Hul gil is opium derived from the poppy and some of the opium is much more potent than other varieties.  Gamaliel and Loukas are followed and narrowly escape injury as they seek out answers.

The author has served on the University of Maryland School of Medicine faculty and is an ordained Episcopal priest. Ramsay has written a number of books.  Holy Smoke is the third in a trilogy set in Jerusalem.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, March 2013.