Years--make that eons--ago my next door neighbor at the time mentioned Thomas H. Cook's Blood Innocents. I'd seen it on the stands, but it had a cover that made it look like a routine police thriller.
A few good words made me change my mind and I read it and enjoyed the story of a homicide cop working on a pair of murders which resemble the killings of a pair of zoo animals. It featured a strange solution and a few character flourishes that shined.
I've picked up more Cook novels over the years, and he's picked up Edgars and accolades, but for some reason I've never made it a point to pick up every title.
I'm not sure what prompted me back into the Cook fold, perhaps an interesting synopsis on a book called The Interrogation, but my new interest recently led me to Breakheart Hill.
It's a stunner, a literary mystery that as the first-person narrator puts it is "the darkest story that I ever heard."
A Small Town in Alabama
We learn that he is Dr. Ben Wade, a doctor in the small town of Choctaw Ala. He once wanted to leave about as bad as Jimmie Stewart's character in It's a Wonderful Life, though this is sort of an anti-Frank Capra story.
He returned to serve as a general practitioner after medical school. In the mid-90s he is looking back to 1962 and events surrounding Breakheart Hill where he still envisions a teen-age Kelli Troy whose battered body was found there one summer afternoon.
Kelli, we learn, at the beginning of that school year, was the new girl in school and we follow the course of Ben's unrequited love. He and Kelli are thrust together to edit the school paper, and he and we find her to be a beautiful, remarkable girl with a socially conscious spirit and a desire to change the world.
Civil rights and social consciousness
Ben tells of how they visited a nearby town where some of the earliest civil rights protests were taking place and how that affected her, and gradually he reveals how--even as he tried to prevent it--she fell in love with another student.
Cook tells the story with a masterful skill, revealing facts carefully yet not with contrivance, building to a discovery of what really happened that is chilling and affecting.
I suppose this book may resonate with me for a couple of reasons. I and I suppose everyone can recall high school unrequited loves and how those emotions feel.
While I was in high school in the '70s, my mother was a high school teacher in the '60s and Cook, who is from the South, captures a keenly accurate sense of what those days were like both in the day to day and in the gradual awakening of social consciousness and change.
I'm working my way now through other Cook novel's I've missed including The City When It Rains, but if you've never read Cook Breakheart Hill will make a fine introduction.