Still Life with Crows, Preston & Child

Still Life with Crows,

All we need is love!

7/20/12 My first Preston/Child book… so forgive the obvious regarding plot and the endurance of Pendergast… more on him in another section.

Within its genre, Still Life with Crows is 5* all the way. It approaches great literature, having moments of greatness not often touched in “commercial” fiction. The characters are rich and believable, plot is perfectly paced, reveals are timely and apt. The so-called “horror” element is so palpable and believable, yet not horrifying enough to cause nightmares. Pendergast is my new hero. He is a superman founded in southern gentility.

The plot is cunning. It takes you from a fear of weirdness to a fear of reality to a fear of implausible inevitability. Each chapter is its own little story and each little story builds onto the walls and ledges of the overall tale. The story forces you to try to discover the culprit, as all good mystery should, and while it hides the identifying marks in plain sight, the discovery is a thudding surprise.

The end may have gone on a tad too long. There are bodies piling up and the details of the carnage (in the last 50-75) pp are relatively unnecessary. The reader already knows the why and how. We just need to get to the final links.

The final scene is heart-rending. In the end the story is about love and sin and shame and lost hope.

The degradation of the town, the willingness to whore itself to a plan that will create bio-engineered corn in an effort to save itself is the metaphor for the truth behind the current goings-on in Medicine Creek. As you read, listen closely to the descriptions of the corn fields, the crows, the geography. Geography is the source of the whole plot.

There is a good deal of history, which I must assume is at least somewhat accurate, concerning Native American tribes and their bloody interactions with settlers. In the sections about the tribes, the writing bestows grave respect and acknowledges the sacrifices of the original Americans. The degradation of the tribal ways, the pride and the personal dignity demonstrated by the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Pawnee and Sioux who settled the area before the Civil War also reflects what Medicine Creek has abdicated. The Natives had no choice, but Medicine Creek has.

The female character, Corrie, represents a microcosm of all those same problems. She, like the town, is locked up — her by an unavailable mother and absent father; the town by a mis-guided male head. Corrie’s drunken mother degrades the father’s memory, which the child holds dear.  Sherriff Hazen, the town’s “father” has not deserted his town, but is solving its problems with a misguided belief that the bio-engineered corn is like winning the lottery. He is so blinded by his need to “be a man” and solve the problem, that when it’s almost too late, he hangs his investigations of the murders on the belief that they are being perpetrated out of a murderous competition for the fields to test the corn. The strength of the metaphor comes clear after the story ends. His misguided worship and adherence to his own agenda mimics the town Pastor Wilbur’s unwillingness to forge a sermon of hope during the terrible times the town now endures. Like absent “fathers,” both men abandon their charges by withdrawing from the problem and calling it something else.

The expendable characters, those who are knocked off throughout the book, are simply fodder for the killing machine. Most are given little flesh and blood to provide the reader with sympathetic attachment. The few who have become integral to the plot are killed off even more horrifically.

The final scenes where the chase begins, are filled with metaphor and symbolism that only a second reading will truly illuminate. The structure of the final chase is reminiscent of the chase in Les Miserables and the seeming futility  reminds one Moby Dick’s Ahab. This is a quest and a mystery, a run-for-your-life, breathless and dire case of apprehending the killer of all these good people.

And yet, it is a story about love. It is a story of many kinds of love. Parent-child and child-parent, teacher-student, love for one’s home and culture, love for what one once had and lost, and the love for one’s belief in an All-Forgiving One.

It is no less a warning tale about how often what comes out of our mouths is interpreted to mean something different.

This is a most uplifting story. It is a story of hope, and from the Bible, myth and fairy tale, classical and classic literature it summons all the ancient and archetypal elements that raise the hairs on the nape of one’s neck to make it feel real. The reality is in the hope, not in the horror used to frame “the lesson.”

8/3/12: In retrospect, and now reading P&C’s Fever Dream and Cold Vengeance, we can see that Corrie Swanson (who shows up in Cold Vengeance) may have been an influence for the future Lisbeth Salandar of the Steig Larsson Trilogy, which was published in 2011.

One Response “Still Life with Crows, Preston & Child” →
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