Kelly Strom | Literary suspense in hot locales

Kelly Strom | Literary suspense in hot locales

Since we are going through a hot spell here in Champaign County, I thought it was only right to read a few books set in similar conditions. When you do something like this, it's easier to commiserate with the characters.

What makes the stories this week a little different than some suspense thrillers is that they lean toward the more literary in nature. That means that rather than focusing solely on the heart-racing thrills of the "chase," these books also devote a good amount of time on character development and description of setting.

In "The Disappearing" by two-time Edgar Award-winning author Lori Roy, we are introduced to the sometimes loved and sometimes hated Fielding family.

Lane Fielding escaped her Florida home after high school graduation and didn't look back. She was tired of the small-town suspicions and the eyes that always seemed to be watching.

She moved to New York City and started a new life. After meeting a struggling novelist, they married and had two daughters. Then life happened. He got famous and started cheating on her, which ultimately led to a divorce. With nowhere else to go, Lane and her daughters returned home, to her parents' house, in the same hot and humid river town where she grew up.

Her parents' house is called the Fielding Mansion, which is somewhat connected to an old home for wayward boys. This is where her father worked for decades. Neil Fielding was the stern and formidable director of the place and ruled with an iron fist. Or a whip. Or whatever was handy to beat the boys.

Sometimes they tried to escape and ran past the old house and along the river. When inevitably captured, they were beaten.

Lane and her mom, Erma, heard the rumors. They were easy enough to believe, as Neil ran his home in much the same way. That's one of the reasons why Lane needed to get out. The other reason was because of the incident when Lane was just 13 years old.

Lane disappeared for a time and was presumed to be taken by one of the boys who ran. She had been leaving food out for the boys along the river, with a note encouraging them to get away. When Lane is finally found, a few of the boys are terrorized by Mr. Fielding and some are punished severely.

The townspeople made their assumptions and ostracized the girl, calling her names, and kicking the family out of the community church.

So now, 20 years later, Lane comes back. A truce is shattered when Lane's oldest daughter goes missing, as she is the second girl in the past month who has disappeared. At the same time, surviving boys from Neil's past abuse are coming forward with accusations, and the reporters are swarming.

Are these disappearances related? Can the Fieldings make it through this latest media frenzy and the town's suspicious gossipers? What is the full story of Neil and the Boys Home?

The descriptions of the setting are incredibly detailed, and the reader is easily transported to rural Florida.

As humid and stifling as the last book was, "The Dry" by Jane Harper deals with a different kind of heat.

Set in a small town five hours away from Melbourne, Australia, Kiewarra is going through a terrible drought. Relying mostly on agriculture as a source of revenue, the farmers, ranchers and townspeople are suffering.

The drought has been going on for years, and there is no end in sight. Like in "The Disappearing," the lead character in this novel left home under suspicious circumstances as a teenager, only to return under continued distrust.

Aaron Falk grew up in Kiewarra with only his father in the home. His best friend was Luke Hadler, and they were eventually joined by Gretchen and Ellie. The foursome did everything together.

When Ellie is found drowned, all fingers point toward Aaron. With an alibi but unable to deal with the nastiness of the townspeople, Aaron's father packs them up and heads to Melbourne.

Twenty years later, Aaron is still haunted, but back for the funeral of his friend Luke. It seems that Luke murdered his wife and son, then turned the gun on himself. Aaron doesn't understand how that fits with the Luke that he used to know. While at the funeral service, he gets a lot of looks from the old classmates and neighbors and is not welcomed with open arms. When more questions come up than answers, Aaron decides to stick around for a bit to help the local police department investigate.

To say this book is atmospheric is an understatement. There were times that I could feel the dry sandy air in my throat. I envisioned kicking tumbleweeds and begging for a glass of water.

The character of Aaron Falk is engrossing. He's a bit curmudgeonly but also sad, and haunted, and vulnerable. His wits far exceed his social skills, but still the reader is drawn to him and his story. Is there a connection between the death of Ellie and the death of Luke? Aaron has a hard time believing that there isn't.

I was surprised to see that "The Dry" was a debut novel. The author definitely has some writing chops, earned as a journalist in the U.K. and Australia. There is talk that this is the first book in a planned series featuring Aaron Falk. I'm just happy that I got into it from the very beginning.

Both of these novels were extremely well written and suspenseful without being gory. I highly recommend them both.

Kelly Strom is the collection manager at the Champaign Public Library. She orders books, ebooks, magazines, newspapers, audiobooks and CDs.

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