I picked up Down River in my local bookstore’s Regional section. Hart lives a few hours from my current home, and an hour or so from where I grew up on my father’s farm, in North Carolina. Just about every murder I have ever attempted to solve has taken place in one of three locals: New York City, Los Angeles, or Miami. How refreshing, then, to read about Charlotte, NC as the “Big City”, and most events taking place on a farm in a small town very much like the one I grew up in (and not so very far away).
Down River is Hart’s second book, both taking place in Rowan County, NC. I haven’t read the first, and it did not seem as if I needed to in order to fully enjoy this book. I appreciate it when serial authors allow you to read in any order from any book. My experience with this one will definitely have me reaching for his first novel, and keeping an eye out for future works.
It will be hard for me to keep the bias out of this review. Down River is a story of the prodigal son returning home to the farm where familial relationships are strained. An aging, ailing father, a brother who never left home, and a rebellious sister all play major roles. While reading this book, my father had a massive heart attack and I had to return home to the family farm to help care for him. My brother still lives a mile away, and my gregarious sister completed the circle. So much of this book reminded me of my childhood that my pleasure is probably somewhat derived from pure nostalgia.
There is more to love here than just my tickled loins, however. Hart excels at populating his work with dozens of suspects, all with ample motive and opportunity, without beating you over the head with what he is doing. The pace of the work is extremely swift, but your brain will tumble along after as you compile a line-up, each entrant guiltier than the last. Every five pages I KNEW who the killer was, and turned to my wife, who had just finished the book, looking for a glimmer in her eyes as I presented my latest theory.
Every single last one of them was wrong.
Another draw in Down River is the protagonist, a rough-and-tumble farm boy with big-city street smarts. Not too strapping, but never one to avoid a bit of fisticuffs, he reminds me of myself when I was trying to survive the rigors of living in a rural setting where being smarter than everyone else was a mixed blessing. Told from his perspective, Adam Chase is returning to a town where everyone thinks he got away with murder five years earlier. His father refuses to sell land to a prospective Nuclear power plant, costing investors dearly, and his boyhood friend has gone missing. There is danger at every turn, and Chase’s situation keeps going from bad to worse as he attempts to solve murders faster than the body count can out pace him.
If you enjoy a rough murder mystery, give Down River a try. Everyone in the Carolinas will get a kick out of the local color, but there is obviously something here for all readers as Down River has been nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award for best mystery book. It isn’t out in paperback yet, but Amazon has the hardback for a bargain price of $8.99, so you are out of your mind if you don’t grab a copy for yourself and one for a reader on your holiday list.