At times reading The Right Side of Wrong, the third installment in Reavis Z, Wortham’s Red River Mystery series, seems like reading two different books. Set in a little town near the Texas, Oklahoma border in the ‘60’s, it is at times a historical thriller, at times a chronicle of small town life. Often it seems that Wortham is at his best when he is describing life in Center Springs, Texas and its environs circa 1960.
The novel begins like a house afire: local constable Cody Parker is called out of his bed in the middle of a snowy night to deal with a marital disturbance. On the way, he is ambushed and his car crashes in the snow-filled woods. At least partially pinned in the vehicle, he is surrounded by wild dogs fighting over what they scent as fresh meat. It is an opening sure to keep you reading.
It isn’t long however before the reader is introduced to a pair of eleven-year-olds, Top and his cousin Pepper, who are busy building a tree house. Top lives with his grandparents Ned and Becky Parker. Ned is also a constable, Becky a Choctaw Indian. And while they will all become involved in the criminal goings on in the area, some of the most interesting writing in the novel deals with the description of their everyday activities — a fishing trip with the whole family and a joking explanation of how to catch a fish with a chaw of tobacco, a few hours spent helping a neighbor work on a new roof, a trip to the market for a chunk of ice to make ice cream during a blackout. This may not be the stuff of the typical thriller, but in many respects it is the most memorable part of The Right Side of Wrong.
Until you get to the climax, that is. Once you approach the end of the novel, you’re back in familiar thriller territory. And for the last third of the book, the narrative is both fast-paced and bloody, if at times a bit over the top as the Parkers and friends find themselves at war with Mexican drug peddlers.
Wortham has a real gift for evoking the historical period. He does for the Texas Sixties what The Last Picture Show did for the earlier decade. At his best he has a gift for finding the kinds of significant details that capture the imagination, the television picture that dwindles to a point of light when the set is turned off, the Mexican children who use their new found money to buy Red Ball sneakers, a description of how to make pokeweed salad. It is this kind of detail that lends the story its verisimilitude.
The picture he paints is not all sweetly nostalgic. He is quite clear in pointing out problems like poverty, racism, and corruption. John Washington, a black deputy, is supposed to be limited to dealing with blacks. He isn’t welcome in parts of the local café, let alone in the white areas of town. Although the Parkers and some others treat him with respect and friendship, they are the exception to the rule. There are jurisdictional battles among local officials, a judge, who in this case happens to be on the side of the angels, can act highhandedly if he so desires. There seems to be little organized help for poor families. In general this is not a glorification of the good old days. It is a more honest appraisal.
Most all of these characters appeared in the earlier novels in the series, and there are a lot of references to the events of those narratives (not a bad device for getting an enthusiastic reader to take a look at what he has missed). Of course, other than the fact that a character who is still around in the current volume must have survived the earlier threats, there are no spoilers here.