In Vengeance is Mine, the latest in Reavis Z. Wortham’s Red River Mystery series, Center Springs, the sleepy little Texas town in which the books are set, is having another of its periodic nightmares.
For a one-horse town out in the middle of nowhere where nothing much should be happening, Center Springs and its environs is awash in activity, much of it fraught with danger. A pack of feral dogs is killing domestic animals. One of the locals is found in his truck with a bullet in his head. The bank in Chisum has been robbed by a man and a woman. A little child has swallowed some lye and a huge traffic pileup is blocking the road to the hospital. One of the local lawmen is involved with all kinds of illegal activity. And all of a sudden the town is overrun with what seems like a convention of visiting mobsters. If “small town” connotes boredom, Center Springs defies the stereotype.
It’s the fall of 1967, and the Parker constables, Ned, the elder and Cody, along with John Washington, the African-American Sheriff’s Deputy, are back from their Mexican adventure (The Right Side of Wrong), and still not getting along with the county Sheriff. Thirteen-year-old Top Parker, who lives with his grandfather Ned, and his cousin Pepper are busily minding everyone else’s business and getting themselves into trouble.
Things seem fairly normal, when out of the blue, there are newcomers in town. Tony and Samantha, a couple from the big city, show up looking to rent a place to stay. Tony had met Cody and his wife in Las Vegas, and was so impressed, he says, with Cody’s idyllic description of the place, they had come to look it over.
Tony, however, is not quite what he seems, and it doesn’t take long for things to get complicated. Wortham is adept at creating a fine thriller plot filled with surprises and plenty of action. Once he grabs you, it’s hard to put the book down; something new and exciting always seems to be developing. And it’s all set in a fairly realistic account of what small-town life is like. On one page he can be detailing the beating of a woman in front of her children, on the next explaining frog gigging. The distinction between when you eat dinner and when supper is as significant to him as the sound of a Thompson machine gun. A man in a suit and dress shirt is a man out of place, a man to be wary of.
The world Wortham describes is, at least until things begin to get out of hand, a world we like to look back on and imagine as a better place in a better time. Children can roam around freely. Doors needn’t be locked. Grandmas shuck peas and can pears. Neighbors look out for each other, and everybody knows everybody else.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, that world never really existed. Even then it was a world where wives went across the state line to drink, dance and find company while husbands were at work, a world where the law wasn’t always honest, where the races didn’t really mix, and where major league criminals were only hours away.