Dark Places, the fifth in Reavis Z. Wortham’s “Red River Mystery” series, has the writer working at the top of his game. Set in 1967 in the rural Texas town of Center Springs about a year after the events of his last novel Vengeance Is Mine, Reavis is at his best creating a compelling picture of both time and place. Whether in his nostalgic descriptions of the culture and mores of the country people, or the accuracy of the details of life at the time, his writing is not only believable, it is a testament to their values. These are people who believe in neighbors helping neighbors. They are god fearing, but firm believers that god helps those who help themselves. And almost above all, they believe in family.
So when young Pepper Parker, granddaughter of Constable Ned Parker and niece of Sheriff Cody Parker runs off, headed to hippie heaven in San Francisco, it sets off a family quest to bring her back. At least those who are not stuck at home dealing with a hit and run killing of a local farmer and two missing business men. The plot effectively moves back and forth between the search for Pepper and the local killing, contrasting as it does so the emerging values of the sixties with those of the Parkers.
Most all of the favorites from the earlier installments are back. There’s Pepper’s younger cousin Top who narrates some of the sections in the first person. And along with the Parker lawmen there are the Parker women, Judge O. C. Rains, and African American Deputy John Washington, as well as with an assortment of locals, the Spit and Whittle Club. Plus there’s a new member of the cast likely to become a fixture in the series: Deputy Anna Sloane, a no nonsense expat from the big city. Add a mysterious streetwise Indian named Crow who joins in the search for Pepper and you’ve got a cast set for adventure.
But it is in the accuracy of his depiction of the era that Wortham shines most brightly. On the transistor radio they listen to the songs of the period, “Jimmy Mack” and the Beatles’ “Help.” The local drive in movie is showing Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night. The TV sets need rabbit ears, and to get a cold coke from the local store, you have to guide the bottle through a metal maze in the refrigerated box. Nosey neighbors listen in on party telephone lines. Friendly neighbors bring covered dishes to mourning families, but there are definite codes for the treatment of African Americans and Indians, and all too much of that treatment is bad. It is truly an accurate picture of the period—warts and all.
Wortham is a mystery writer worth your time, and Dark Places is as good a place to start as any.
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