Day 1126: The Unquiet Grave

Cover for The Unquiet GraveI have long admired several of Sharyn McCrumb’s “ballad series” mysteries, novels based upon old Appalachian ballads, some of which have a chilling supernatural element. I thought that The Unquiet Grave might be one of these, but instead it is more closely related to her The Ballad of Tom Dooley, which I thought had severe flaws.

The Unquiet Grave, like The Ballad of Tom Dooley, is about a true crime, in which Edward Shue was accused of murdering his wife, Zona, in 1897. The story of this incident, narrated by Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, alternates with the narrative by attorney James P. D. Gardner, the resident in 1930 of a mental asylum. How these stories are connected isn’t explained until about halfway through the novel.

It is when Gardner starts telling his doctor about the case that the story began to lose me. For almost immediately, he maunders off into long stories about his boss at the time of the trial, Shue’s defending attorney, Dr. Rucker. I am sure that McCrumb’s intention, both in this novel and in Tom Dooley, is to tell colorful stories about the region, but the fault in both of these novels is that she gets readers interested in one story only to invoke the wandering memories of some old man, going off in twenty different directions.

link to NetgalleyI did not have the patience for this, so I gave Gardner’s section about 20 pages of time to get back on the subject. When he didn’t, having read more than half the book, I quit reading. I sympathize with what McCrumb is trying to do, trying to invoke the story-telling of an old man who knows a lot of local history, but she lost me twice using this same technique. I think she needs to find a better angle into these true stories of West Virginia.

This is the second book I read for the R.I.P. challenge.

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Day 264: The Ballad of Tom Dooley

Cover for The Ballad of Tom DooleySharyn 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.