Monday, February 2, 2015

Murder and Mayhem in the Dead of Winter

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Three out of five stars

This is an atmospheric novel set in the middle of winter in a tiny town in eastern Pennsylvania named Wyalusing. At the center of the story is Danny Bedford, a giant of a man who was left severely challenged mentally in an accident in which both of his parents died while Danny was still a young boy.

Since that time, Danny's life has been a stern trial. He was raised by a bitter hard-drinking uncle and after the death of the uncle supports himself by tending to a laundromat. He lives in a tiny room above the laundromat which is part of his compensation. Most other residents in the small community either ignore Danny or mock him both because of his size and his disability.

The only person who's ever been kind to Danny is a waitress named Mindy who shares his birthday and who is angered by the way the rest of the town treats him. But when Mindy turns up murdered, Danny suddenly finds himself in the crosshairs of a number of people who immediately jump to the conclusion that he has killed her.

In particular, Danny is pursued by a vicious deputy sheriff who has bullied Danny all their lives and who is now ready to shoot him on sight. Danny is only vaguely aware of what is going on around him and his chances of surviving the night of the murder seem small indeed.

As the title implies, the story takes place in the dead of winter, and Gailey is at his best in setting the frigid scene in which the action takes place. The characters are well-drawn, if a bit one-dimensional, and one feels a great deal of sympathy for Danny and the tragic situation in which he finds himself. But the story did not resonate with me quite as much as I had hoped, in part because some of the characters did not seem all that believable.

This is another of those novels in which some of the characters drink very heavily in addition to taking drugs. As a result, any normal person would be totally incapacitated very early on, although these characters continue to forge on for hours, committing mayhem on a massive scale. This ultimately took me out of the story because I kept thinking that at least one or two of these characters should have been not just dead drunk, but simply dead from alcohol poisoning long before the climax of the novel.

There's another development at the end of the book which allows the narrative to spin out for another few chapters but that simply made no sense to me, and so while I enjoyed parts of this book, it winds up being three stars for me rather than four.

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