Kansas, really? This murder mystery is set in Kansas, and not a city either. It is set in the plains of Kansas, so flat and dry a stand of trees rises like a heat mirage and the wind is an ever-constant companion. J.M. Hayes, Arizona resident, grew up in Kansas and has managed to escape our notice for a long time. He is possessed of a keen eye, a coruscating sense of humor, a literate pen, and a devilish sense of the absurd. When reading this story I had to slow down. He is liable to turn suddenly in a direction I hadn’t anticipated.
The group of characters Hayes created stand on their own, and from this novel he has created a series. I liked the unfamiliar setting and the doses of history and local culture. He has teenager-speak and cadence just right and a lame police station with plenty of questionable characters and pistols full of blanks.
What I didn’t particularly like was mixing the absurd with the painful reality of the mystery: dismemberment murders by slashing razor blades, rampant sexual abuse of entire families, chasing down a black man simply because he is black, little-old-lady suicide by shotgun—I mean, really, is this meant to be funny? It is hardly the stuff of a lighthearted read.
Take the first suspect, for instance. A man, a reverend in fact, is slashed and genitally dismembered in the morning. When the town deputy goes to his house to look for clues, he happens across an unfamiliar black man, who he immediately decides must be the killer. He chases him across field and river, finally cornering him in an old barn, only to discover he is a professor of history at a nearby university whose car had broken down on the highway several miles out of town. Funny? It is meant to be, judging from the telling and the character of the deputy. It is edgy. True-to-life? Unfortunately. The reverend, we learn later, is a child molester. Unfortunately, we know this could also be true-to-life. We sense the author using a razor on us for our societal ills.
The setting in the fields of Kansas make it logical and perhaps necessary, I suppose, to place the final scenes in a grain silo, necessitating this paragraph in the middle of mayhem:
"Municipalities tend to have the larger elevators, and it was with this hope in mind that the beast of Buffalo Springs was built. It was 408 feet in length, 48 feet wide, and 90 feet high at the roof, or 110 feet at the roof of the head house. It was a monolith, formed by one continuous pour of concrete that took almost two weeks and involved 250 workers. It contained 36 circular bins, 17 star bins and 35 outer bins, so that only one empty space between the work floor and the distribution floor was unavailable to store grain. That space contained the preferred route for humans to travel to the head house and the distributing floor. The fastest, if not necessarily the safest, was by way of a pulley in the head house and was driven by an electric motor on the work floor. On an adjacent wall there was a runged ladder, positioned in case of a power failure or failure of the mechanism. There was also a circular metal staircase in that unused bin, the safest route, but a slow and tiring one….the fourth and last way to and from the top…"You get my point I think. Too many words? It’s kind of interesting, but…perhaps we could have learned something about silos before the events in the final chapter required us to use our knowledge.
I’d like to have another look at the books this author has written. There are many things about this book that indicate the author is a thoughtful, learned man with a deep vein of humor and a clear eye for grim realities. And the setting and characters are unique. I am reluctant to pass up the chance to use my new knowledge of grain silos on another of his quirky mysteries.
You can buy this book here: Tweet