"TO THE BONES" by Valerie Nieman (West Virginia University Press, 204 pages, $20).
There's much to be said for good old-fashioned thrillers, in which the protagonist is up against a tangled web of villains whose greed and utter lack of compunction on their crooked path to gluttonous control have left a stack of corpses in their wake. "To the Bones," the fourth novel by Valerie Nieman, is such a book.
Nieman's protagonist is Darrick MacBrehon, a government auditor who stops for gas in the small, sleepy, fictional Appalachian town of Redbird, West Virginia, on his drive to Washington, D.C. He winds up robbed, assaulted and discarded down a cavernous hole in the mountainside. As he stumbles along the roadside searching for a lifeline, passersby mistake him for a zombie.
Darrick arrives in Redbird as an orphan with a murky past, and his brutal introduction to the town takes a further terrible turn. He finds himself delving into the disappearance of the adult child of the lone person who befriends him — a sweepstakes operator named Lourana Taylor. Lourana helps house and hide Darrick solely because she suspects that he's not as a dangerous as the forces out to get him — the same ones responsible for whatever's happened to her daughter, missing for 18 months.
Lourana tries to explain Redbird to Darrick. "People don't appear here, like you," she tells him. "They more disappear." The community is composed of honest citizens who are being conned and killed by the town's top echelon, the Kavanagh family who own the coalmines and control just about every resource possible, from the river water to the police.
Darrick turns out to be a hapless man possessed with the gift of empathy to the highest degree, one that leaves him vulnerable to predators who don't want their secrets to be sensed by anyone: He's a mind reader capable of feeling others' emotions and thoughts, and his extraordinary ability has a sinister impact beyond his control.
When Lourana questions him about the "rent-a-cop" who attacked him at the gas station, then ended up dead, Darrick explains to her that he could feel this stranger's fear. "I could hear how his mind was working. He was consumed by fear. It was like a terrible wave that rolled out of him, across me, like it was going to smother me. I sort of pushed it back. I think that killed him."
It's the first time anything like this has happened to Darrick, and he doesn't understand how or why. Caught in the midst of a maelstrom, he must stop the murders and simultaneously sort out, with his instinctual yet rough-around-the-edges magnanimity, his own imperfect and mysterious life.
The dystopian horror is a chilling reminder of what can arise from the vast distances between human beings, as well as the vast mysteries within an individual. Is the darkest underbelly of apocalyptic greed, ruthless capitalism and the lethal abuse of power capable of decimating the heart of this hardworking, headstrong Appalachian community?
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