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It’s a Mystery: “Life is an ever-unfolding panoply of marvels”

Niceville

By Carsten Stroud
Knopf, 2012

It begins with a missing boy, Rainey Teague. He literally disappears from Main Street, Niceville. Billed in the opening as “a hell of a town,” Niceville isn’t nice at all. It’s a town without pity populated by a regular rogue’s gallery of villains and villainesses:

The main industry ruling the place was a lethal combination of grinding hard times, blood-simple gunsels, pointless death, and blue ruin…. Niceville had some kind of strange vibe going on, like there was some power running through it, or behind it, or under it, like a live wire or an underground river, and this power wasn’t a kindly one. Whatever it was, it didn’t like people. There was something wrong with Niceville.

Most astonishing is that a security camera captures the moment of Rainey Teague’s instant inexplicable vanishing. He just flicks off as if he was only a digital image and somebody has hit delete. In an atmosphere of menace and danger, the cops devote their days and nights to the search for the boy. As far as the cops are concerned, what the camera shows, or doesn’t show, has been orchestrated by a latter-day Houdini with more than a nod to the tricks of David Copperfield. Because, truth laid bare, this is a town where a kind of evil magic is ever-present.

On the evening of the tenth day, when hope is almost gone, a bizarre series of last ditch efforts unearth the boy alive. He is found comatose, inside a long-sealed tomb containing the coffin of Ethan Ruelle who died in a duel fought on Christmas Eve 1921. The boy is cradled in the withered mummified arms of Ruelle’s corpse. Why Ruelle is explored to death, so to speak, but Rainey’s presence in that coffin remains baffling to the end:

When they got him out, still in his school uniform, they had no idea how the tomb had been opened without any sign of tampering, or by whom, or why, but Rainey Teague was alive. They took him to Lady Grace, where, over the next five hours, he slipped slowly but inexorably into a catatonic state.

The ICU docs tell Rainey’s father that the boy’s catatonia is not an uncommon response to unimaginable trauma. Watching over his son in the middle of all the medical machinery while Rainey’s mother is struggling with ovarian cancer, he sinks into a state of near madness.

Immediately etched into our consciousness at the end of part one is that occult forces are breaking through tangible reality. Hand in hand with the calculated violence commonplace in old gangster films, the ordinary world is linked to an often inexplicable and powerful spiritual world.

Cut to a year later. Rainey Teague is still comatose. There is a disastrous cascade of events that ricochet across twenty different lives over the course of just thirty-six hours.

Begin with a bank robbery executed by one greedy cop and his two buddies that goes seriously wrong. Four fellow officers are brutally ambushed, a news chopper meets a gruesome end, and there is a standoff between an accused pedophile and a SWAT team. Meanwhile, an abusive husband with a thirst for vengeance outs a father caught taping his daughters in the shower and the town’s number one snitch gets more than what’s coming to him. Act it out and it’s like the Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers on acid—only, alas, not so funny.

Another Niceville statistic courtesy of Boonie Hackendorff, solid FBI investigator under his good-old-boy façade:

Niceville has logged one hundred and seventy-nine confirmed and completely random stranger abductions, SAs, since records were first started being kept back in 1928. This is a disappearance rate of, like, little over two a year…. It’s so far above the national average that Niceville gets cited every year over at the FBI training courses in Quantico.

Boonie’s in the act courtesy of the greedy cop who mischievously involves Boonie in the bank robbery investigation. In this crazy quilt town, if Rainey Teague hadn’t been found, he’d be another SA. As it is, he’s a mute symbol that reminds us how long we have to wait until Judgment Day. At least, I think that’s one of Stroud’s messages—the finale, like most of the character’s backstories, is strangely convoluted. Much of Niceville takes place in a weird shadow world where time has a different rhythm and where justice is elusive. Weird often raises more questions than answers.

Make no mistake, maddening as Niceville is, you stick with it. That’s because by intentionally blurring the distinction between the “good guys” and “bad guys,” Stroud creates the kind of unpredictable interaction between his characters that keeps things moving. The demonstrated chasm between the characters’ intentions and actions and what inevitably transpires is, like life, a challenge we are forced to accept. If the ending leaves mysteries unsolved, take heart: there is a sequel coming.

Meanwhile, think Stephen King crossed with Mickey Spillane plus more than a hint of Damon Runyon gone awry and you’ll have a good time.

____
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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