Published by Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: January 14th 2014
I’m not a mystery/thriller aficionado so I can’t pretend to know all of the various plot types but from my limited experience there are two ways to go: the-questions-keep-coming, working up to a sonic boom of truth or the reader is in on the mystery and it’s a race to the finish to see if anyone in the cast will figure it out in time. Both ways work, depending on how well they’re written. Recently, I reviewed In the Blood which falls into the former category. In the latter group is Mercy Snow: A Novel by Tiffany Baker, a mystery set in a paper mill town in New Hampshire, one of those desperate, on the edge places where the global economy has shredded the locals. Cal McAllister is the 3rd generation mill owner and is battling the unions and the EPA to save his mill.
The night before Thanksgiving a school bus goes over the edge of a ravine and into the Androscoggin river. The bus driver is left in a coma and one student dies. The stretch of the road is known as a treacherous one and the appearance of a pick-up truck further down the road, crashed into a tree, lends credibility to some of the reports that someone had recklessly passed the bus on the right, forcing it to swerve and lose control. The owner of the truck is Zeke Snow, a young man who scratches out a subsistence living in the woods with his two sisters. Their family is already deemed suspicious as an aunt disappeared from the site in the 1950s and their father, who never held a job but always had money for booze, died alone in the woods. In this way, Baker draws the lines between heroes and villains from the very beginning—or does she?
A silence fell over the room as the women took their needles, bent their heads, and began to stitch, their needles pricking, prying, and then just as quickly closing the little holes they were making in the fabric of one another’s lives.
June McAllister is Cal’s wife and the first lady of Titan Falls. She hosts a weekly sewing circle dispensing advice and tea to the mill wives. Even as she questions aspects of her husband’s company—extreme pollution of the river, a high rate of miscarriages and birth defects in town—she is ever mindful of how high she’s risen from her own past. This fear overcomes her concerns and leads her to ignore the truth and do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo.
For Mercy, the status quo is abject poverty, a missing and wanted brother, and a family reputation so bad no one will hire her. At nineteen she has learned much about living in the woods and off the land and her examination of the crash scene tells a different story than the one the police are pushing. Her knowledge of plants and animals lands her job with Hazel Bell a sheep famer who lives outside of town and stays out of the locals’ gossip circles. Her husband is Floyd, the bus driver who survived the bus crash but is physically and mentally impaired—unable to speak, he can’t tell what he knows about the crash.
Baker begins by defining the good vs. bad characters in Mercy Snow but quickly discards these portrayals by using a stray thought or glimpse into the past. These work to fill in gaps and move each from a one-note depiction into people of many facets. This about-face in no way takes away from the readability of the novel, instead it enhances the tension of the story. Mercy Snow is not just about a bus crash and a student’s death, it is a mournful look at a way of life struggling to stay alive. Decay and depression permeate everywhere—even the river, which, through Baker’s eyes, is alive with malevolence in its sludgy depths. Man and nature each have their part to play and Baker imbues them with equal power, meaning Mercy Snow is without mercy in its ability to grab the reader and hold on.