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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy

Dutton, 336 pages, $26.95 (c2015)

Here is another languid, poetic Southern work by Lori Roy. She won the Edgar for her first work, “Bent Road.” She was nominated for her second work, “Until She Comes Home.” And she has been nominated for this year’s Edgar for Best Mystery Novel for “Let Me Die in His Footsteps.” That’s a pretty impressive resumé.

Roy seems to have an aversion to placing a story in contemporary times. “Bent Road” was set in the 60s, “Until She Comes Home” in the 50s, and “Let Me Die in His Footsteps” in 1936 and 1952. Even though the plot line is complicated, there is a simplicity in setting a story back before sophisticated forensic techniques, social media, and a camera in every pocket.

In 1936 two sisters, Juna and Sarah, live on a rural tobacco farm in Kentucky. Juna has black eyes and the "know how," a folkloric prescience. When young girls “ascend,” that is, turn fifteen and a half years old, they are considered women. The country folk fear that that’s when Juna came into her evil powers.  Sure enough, despite drawing together to provide solace to the family, the neighbors feel validated when Juna and Sarah’s young brother, Dale, disappear.

In 1952 two sisters, Annie and Caroline, live on a rural lavender farm in the same neck of the woods. Sarah is their mother and Aunt Juna hasn’t been seen in years. Annie has the same black eyes as her aunt. People are kinder to her but suspect that she, too, has unnatural powers. When it is time for Annie to ascend and look into a well at midnight to see the face of her future husband, she is overcome with the feeling that Juna has returned and that no good can come of it.

Indeed, a slow-moving turmoil ensues and what happened to Dale many years ago is dredged up again. Was the right person blamed for his disappearance? The many secrets buried for years are forcing their way to the surface again.

Although most of the book moves like molasses, the ending punches swiftly and ruthlessly. Roy does a good job of describing the community, the prejudices and strengths of the people, She also develops Annie and Sarah in depth. The primary players’ motivations are carefully drawn and one can feel how real those characters are.

There are a lot of references to smoke and burning, the smell of lavender, and the power of superstition. This was a true Southern novel in the mode of Thomas Cook and Daniel Woodrell (who is thankfully much more terse): lots of atmosphere and family dysfunction.

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