There are several ways to know whether you’ve got a really fine novel on your hands, and you can tell pretty quickly that Dry Bones in the Valley is a debut of that caliber.
First, author Tom Bouman knows his rural Pennsylvania setting and is familiar with its smallest details, from inhabitants’ accents and manners to their dilapidated trailer homes, and from animal tracks in the woods to the winds and the night sky. Second, the plot unfolds just right, beckoning with its authenticity and maintaining a flow that stays true to the characters and the narrator’s sense of how things are. The storyline may commence with a simple atmosphere, but it conceals unspoken depths that reveal themselves without an excess of words or urging by the author. Third, the people fit snugly in their roles, and their dialogue sounds true in every way—even when their backs are turned, we sense they’re still in character.
The understated, straightforward Henry Farrell is one of only two police officers in Wild Thyme township, a rural area where folks are not shy about dressing in camo or expressing their feelings about the hazards of “too much government.” This is hunting and fishing country, and Harry, who does some hunting himself, uses metaphors of field and forest as he seeks the killer of an unknown John Doe found high on a ridge. When a colleague is murdered, the action escalates, and Harry’s strength and patience is sorely tested.
Descriptions of the rural backcountry and its residents immerse readers in a landscape that rings with authenticity, humor and also great sadness. For some, grinding poverty rubs shoulders with the anticipation of a financial windfall, as the juggernaut of corporate gas drilling and fracking moves slowly across the Pennsylvania landscape, buying rights to property after property to feed its ever-escalating need for drilling sites.
With more questions than answers, Harry maneuvers the tangled trails, underbrush and home-grown meth labs that pockmark the countryside, contending with a colorful cast of locals, including a sad, aging recluse, the drugged-out “People of the Bus,” gun-happy revenge seekers, and last but far from least, the mysterious lady of the bog.