“There was a saying among these people: A dry year will scare you to death, and a wet year will kill you.” This feeling of perpetual dread permeates the evocative beginnings of Dane Bahr, THE HOUSE BOAT (Counterpoint, 242 pp., $26), which recounts a particularly volatile year in Oscar, Iowa – a year in which the Mississippi River city transformed itself as the weather changed from drought to torrential: “Four days of heavy rains and the river became a butcher. It would rip through banks as it swells and cleave the edges of cultivated land like a knife to the chest.
Just outside of town, a girl, discovered in the woods, claims her boyfriend was murdered, although no body has been found. Yet collective suspicion lands on Rigby Sellers, a loner who lives in a rotting houseboat on the river with only a creepy salvaged mannequin for company: “He often spoke to her. Sometimes try to feed her. … He was dressing her and running his fingers through her abrasive hair and telling her how pretty she was. Sellers seem impervious to increasingly sinister rumors about his character and behavior. When the local sheriff asks for the help of a detective, events turn increasingly dark.
Bahr deftly moves through time; its short chapters, which feature the perspectives of different townspeople, add to the feeling that the enormity of the horror cannot be fully understood. “The Houseboat” reminded me of works by Robert Bloch strained by a more literary – but very welcome – sensibility.
In the village of Shady Hollow, “nestled deep in the woods, spanning a wide valley between two mountains,” people drink coffee at Joe’s Mug, buy the latest issues of Nevermore Books and read about The Shady Hollow Gazette. From time to time, the small bucolic town is rocked by murders. And oh yes, one more thing: all the residents are animals.
COLD CLAY (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 221 pp., paper, $16), the second outing of Juneau Black, the pen name of authors Jocelyn Cole and Sharon Nagel, was originally self-published in 2017. In it, Vera Vixen, the paper’s featured reporter, investigates the discovery of old moose bones in an apple orchard and trying to whitewash Joe Elkin, the owner of the café as well as the victim’s husband. She also tries to figure out why a fancy silver mink moved to town.
Black’s books — “Shady Hollow,” “Cold Clay,” and “Mirror Lake,” which will be reissued next month — have become my new favorite comfort reads. The plot is sharp, the prose lean and the atmosphere pure joy. Vixen and the rest of the creatures never feel like anthropomorphic Disney cartoon characters. I look forward to another infusion of Shady Hollow mayhem.
Sarah Weinman’s Crime column appears twice a month.