I was enthusiastic when I read Heather Young’s Debut Novel, The Lost Girls, and when the book subsequently was nominated for the 2017 Edgar for Best First Novel, it was #1 on the Literary Lunchbox rankings. (The winner was actually Flynn Barry’s Under the Harrow, also an excellent book.)
Now Young is up for Best Novel, and The Distant Dead has much in common with The Lost Girls. Families – their tragedies and the secrets they keep – are at the heart of both books. And in both books, the characters are fully realized and complicated.
At the heart of The Distant Dead is 6th grader Sal Prentiss. Poor and fatherless, he is one of the rejects in his class, and he knows it, and his life only gets worse when his mother dies of a drug overdose and he goes to live with his uncles, Gideon and Ezra. The Prentisses live in a trailer near their derelict home, on acreage that has been in the Prentiss family for 170 years. We know this because the family obligation and family tradition is both a source of pride and a heavy burden on each family member.
But a bright spot comes on the horizon – former university professor Adam Merkel starts teaching math at Sal’s school. He’s a bit of a sad sack – the students call him Merkel the Turtle – but he sees how much Sal needs a sandwich and some attention, and they soon form a bond. So it’s especially tragic when Adam is murdered, and it is Sal who finds his charred corpse in the embers of a bonfire. And Nora Wheaton, another teacher who was likely Adam’s only friend in their small Nevada town, is pulled in to the mystery, trying to puzzle out not only the murder, but Adam’s tragic past.
Nora has her own tragic past. First, Nora’s promise to her dying mother to take care of her father and brother, which robbed Nora of her career hopes and tied her to their small town. And second, her brother’s death in a car accident that was her dad’s fault – both dad and brother were drunk. Now she’s divorced, tied to the father she despises, and works in the shadow of her sainted mother.
Young tells the story from various perspectives, and they are all, more or less, unreliable narrators. This makes the plot progression particularly fascinating, as layers are pulled back and characters – and their motivations – are more fully revealed. It’s a sad but curiously hopeful book. I found the ending, which I won’t spoil here, to be emotionally resonant but with a last-minute character development that feels a bit unrealistic.
Comparing to the “old folks’ sleuthing” books I previously reviewed, I found The Distant Dead to be just as meticulously plotted, but with greater humanity and deeper character development. It’s also a much darker book, and I suspect it will not have as wide a readership as The Thursday Murder Club, in particular. At the end of the day, I’m a sucker for psychological twists and turns, so The Distant Dead takes the top spot in the Literary Lunchbox rankings.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel