Sharyn McCrumb has written several series of light mysteries, some better than others. I have usually enjoyed her “ballad” series–atmospheric, sometimes ghostly mysteries set in Appalachia and each named after a traditional folk ballad. The Ballad of Tom Dooley, despite a background of historical research (because this folk ballad is based on a true case), is not her best, however.
According to McCrumb’s notes at the end of the novel, she got interested in the story after researching it for an article and decided that the prevailing theories of the crime are not satisfying. So, she reconstructed her theory of the crime in this book. As such, it is not so much a mystery as an explication.
Most people vaguely know the story, that Tom Dooley (actually Dula) met Laura Foster “on the mountain/stabbed her with [his] knife.” Another defendant, Ann Melton, was let go. But McCrumb says most people in Wilkes County, where the crime occurred, will tell you Ann did it. To McCrumb, knowing that Ann was Tom’s long-time married lover, Tom being guilty didn’t make sense.
The novel is narrated by two characters who were actually involved in the incident: Pauline Foster, who was Ann Melton’s cousin and servant girl; and Zebulon Vance, the ex-governor and senator of pre-Civil War North Carolina who defended Tom. Pauline is an interesting character–McCrumb depicts her as a sociopath who manipulates the others and wants revenge for Ann’s slights.
The biggest fault in the novel is the narration of Zebulon Vance. At first, I thought McCrumb’s intent was to depict him as a maundering old bore, possibly even senile, as his section is so repetitive and adds so little to the narrative. It is mostly about himself and has little to do with the story. But then I read that Vance’s career was one reason McCrumb wanted to do the story. Instead of adding to it, it detracts from and drags against the impetus of the plot.
The fact is that none of the characters are likable people, and the crime isn’t particularly interesting. From the author of some haunting stories, this novel is a disappointment. If McCrumb wanted to write about Vance, she may have done better to write a biography.