I actually read this book in August 2013 and it’s review languished in the Drafts folder for the past five months while my free time was consumed with other demands at home and at work. Thankfully, a more manageable rhythm of life has been re-established and I am once again able to share my literary adventures and creative endeavors with the world at large. So without further ado, I present my long over-due reflection on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.
I love the title of this book; it’s intriguing with the implied inevitable tragedy and (perhaps most importantly) it made me pick up a novel by an author I knew nothing about. Kudos also go to the artist who designed the cover for this paperback edition for effectively giving me a taste of the book’s atmosphere before I’d even read the first page.
This mystery is quite a contrast from last novel I read. Quicksand has an immediacy to it’s pace, like a series of white water rapids that move you through the story with impetuous haste; there is this sense of narrowing as the entire plot whirls around a handful of characters. Whereas The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is more like a ride on an old steam engine train, slowly building up speed, moving effectively while letting you take in the surrounding landscape and study the other passengers.
The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter has a slice-of-life feel to it (despite opening with a murder-suicide); you see different characters fighting personal demons, marking particular milestones, and cherishing secret dreams that may or may not have any bearing on the outcome of the mystery itself. The citizens of Dark Hollow, Tennessee, reminded me of people I knew growing up in a small town, which made their story seem more real to me. While Quicksand almost felt like a fantasy to me (maybe because I’ve never had a brilliant detective and a charismatic ex-arms dealer vying for my affections like Eve Duncan), this story and it’s characters are very grounded in the culture of the rural Midwest in the early 1990s. This pre-9/11 novel lacks certain attitudes that permeate our culture today. And I tasted the bittersweet tang of nostalgia as I read about Sheriff Arrowood attending a Judds concert during their farewell tour. In my opinion, this type of present day fiction (McCrumb published it in 1992) makes the best historical fiction, if it survives long enough.
I found it interesting that after reading Quicksand, I was eager to start the next book on my bookshelf, but when I closed The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter for the last time, I was content for more than a week to reflect on the pictures of the life in this Tennessee valley that McCrumb had painted so effectively for me. Quicksand was cotton candy–fun, but not really satisfying. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was pot roast, cooked slow and seasoned well. There was one dry bit–a few pages of odd and distracting historical exposition in the middle of the book–but over all a literary meal that hits the spot!
Blurb (from the paperback edition): Blessed with “the Sight,” old Nora Bonesteel is the first to know about the murder-suicide in Dark Hollow, Tennessee. Four members of the Underhill family lie dead on a run-down farm. And Sheriff Spencer Arrowood has this worried feeling that the bad things aren’t over. Old Nora knows they aren’t. For what she saw was the kind of dying that will test the courage of the living–and a sheriff’s insights into country way and hearts.
First line: Nora Bonesteel was the first one to know about the Underhill family.
I would recommend this book to: Anyone who likes a mystery that takes it’s time.
Would I read it again: Yes
My personal rating: 4 out of 5