Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Shameful Secrets, Buried Bodies, & the Fair Hand of Fate


There’s an old saw which holds that nothing in life is certain but death and taxes. (Bit of a Gloomy Gus came up with that one, apparently.) Of course it isn’t any truer than most such sayings; the last time I checked, the sun still rises in the east, mathematical formulas continue to work, and (soon to be relevant here) those little directional compasses--common to hikers’ kits and cars’ rearview mirrors everywhere--reliably keep on pointing due north.   

If only our so-called “moral” compasses followed the same rules of behavior, always agreeing on what’s right and wrong, things would be so much simpler, wouldn’t they? But, alas, such isn’t the case; whether due to sheer human perverseness or guided by convenience, the ol’ moral compass shows a penchant for fickleness from one situation to the next... sometimes surprising even us. 

Newcomer Jamie Mason exposes the intricacies of our moral compasses in her impressive debut, the psychological thriller Three Graves Full.

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As hard as it is to live with the knowledge that you’ve done something really, really wrong, it’s that much harder to live with the secret of it... never knowing--but always wondering--if your dreadful and dastardly deed is on the brink of being found out. 

Mousey, awkward Jason Getty knows that feeling all too well. A little more than a year ago, he beat a man to death in his living room, then buried the body in the farthest corner of his own backyard. (No, it wasn’t premeditated, and yes, the dead dude definitely deserved it. Still, killing a fellow like that is almost universally frowned on, and burying bodies out back is pretty much a guaranteed ticket to a nice little six-by-six barred cell and a lifetime supply of orange jumpsuits.) 

Now Jason’s got another problem. Nearly a year-and-a-half of neglect has left his lawn an unholy mess; something has to be done ASAP, if he doesn’t want his few neighbors to start knocking on the door. Since facing the prospect of hedge-trimming, weed-whacking, and flower-planting is a no-go (the man doesn’t want to hang out in his yard, can you blame him?), he decides to hire a landscaping service to spruce things up.

His worst nightmare comes true when the foreman comes to the door and tells him he’d better come outside, because they’ve found something--a body. Impossibly, though, the man doesn’t lead Jason to the back of the property, but instead, shows him to one side of the house, where there is, indeed, a skeleton peeking up at them from the newly-turned dirt... almost directly below Jason’s bedroom window (in some kind of awful karmic joke).

When Jason’s house and yard are overrun with detectives, crime-scene investigators, and one very smart dog (in a birthday hat, no less!), it’s all he can do to keep it together... particularly when the news suddenly gets much, much worse. Turns out there isn’t just the one body buried next to his house; there’s another on the opposite side... and now, the detectives are giving him some mighty funny looks.

As the investigation heats up in their small South Carolina community--the questions getting more personal and the searches more invasive--Jason fights to hold onto his sanity. He knows he’s not responsible for the two bodies bookending his modest home, even as he knows too well he’s completely responsible for the one they’ve yet to find. And, when body number three does come to light... well, stuff is sure to hit the proverbial fan.

Meanwhile, besides detectives Tim Bayard and Ford Watts (and Ford’s beloved companion-and-volunteer-doggy-detective Tessa), other interested parties are anxiously watching the proceedings, as well--Leah, the determined young woman still searching for (though not precisely mourning) her long-lost fiancé; Boyd Montgomery, previous owner of Jason’s house; and Bart Montgomery, Boyd’s ne’er-do-well twin brother. Everyone wants answers, just not necessarily the same ones.

As a few more answers--not to mention, more questions--come to light, the various characters find themselves circling ever closer... to each other, to the truth... and to danger. All of them have bad things they’d rather not admit to themselves, let alone have drug into the open and exposed... but who among them is willing to kill (again?) in order to keep everything buried?

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With what has to be one of the best opening lines to a story, ever--”There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard”--I knew Three Graves Full was going to be something special from the very start. Darker-than-a-moonless-night, it’s also full of the best sort of humor--that which is founded in reality, those little insights into mood, personality, psychology, and feelings that have you nodding your head in recognition (and often, in utter delight).

As hard as it is to find something fresh to say, that’s exactly what Mason has achieved; this isn’t like anything I’ve read before. Her prose is lyrical, yet her writing never veers into the flowery or overdone. The pacing is perfectly-timed; there aren’t any moments of absolute calm in this tale, but rather, a well-honed tension that’s allowed to escalate naturally, in small bursts and pulse-pounding action sequences.

The characters and their language ring true (right down to the nasty chap who poor, hapless Jason did away with so memorably), and reading their deepest, darkest thoughts--showing how their very different moral compasses allow them to live with the things they’ve done--makes it feel as though they’re as real as the guy next door, and are surely living off the page... maybe just down the road. I can't wait to see what Ms. Mason has in store next.

(And, if I haven’t hooked you by now--and you’re an animal lover--all I’m gonna say is that this is how to write about dogs, their relationships with those they love, and why dogs do what they do. Really, the only thing that could’ve make Three Graves Full any better would’ve been the inclusion of a cat in a role of equal importance. [And yes, that’s a hint. ;)])


GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 Engrossed Mousies

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