Reading a novel by Sharyn McCrumb is like listening to the movements of a symphony: separate themes are introduced, explored, and expounded upon, until they come together in a melodic whole. The insistent note McCrumb sounds in The Ballad of Frankie Silver is the story of a young woman who killed her husband, and the justice that awaited her in the town of Morganton, North Carolina, in 1833. It is a true history that relies on the novelist's art to make the theme of poor defendant versus upper middle class society resonate for our times.
Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, recuperating from a gunshot wound, has been invited to attend the execution of a man whom he arrested for two gruesome murders in the 1970s. To pass the time until the state electrocutes convict Fate Harkryder, the sheriff delves into the case file of Frankie Silver, a 19th-century woman tried and hanged for killing her husband with an ax. The connections he draws between the two defendants lead Arrowood to question his judgment about the Harkryder case. By the time Arrowood discovers further evidence that may exonerate Harkryder, it is almost too late to plead for the prisoner's life.
McCrumb's subtle storyline passes back and forth in time, as Arrowood reads of Frankie Silver's miserable destiny in the writings of a clerk of the court that convicted her in 1832. Unlike most modern mysteries, the plot does not rely on a pool of suspects to lead the reader with clues. Instead, the building suspense is driven by Arrowood's initial curiosity and gradual obsession with Frankie's case, an obsession we follow as the novel slips between the centuries. Without a hint of preachiness, McCrumb leads us to consider the terrible toll of domestic violence, the assumptions rich and poor make about one another, and the barbaric anachronism of the death penalty. It is to her credit that these solemn issues never get in the way of a good story.