Book Review: by John Hagarty
Suzanne Schiffman’s second novel is an intriguing tale of the search for a killer that unfolds in a bucolic rural setting. Death and beauty go hand in hand in this well-told narrative. Adding depth to the story is the juxtaposition of urban wealth and rural simplicity. What appears on the surface belies what’s happening behind the scenes.
Within a few opening pages a body is found stuffed into a sleeping bag on a Wayne County highway. Two protagonists are introduced: the local sheriff, Spike Stryker, alive and plodding, and his grisly find, French businessman Daniel Perrault, who has been killed by a blow to the head.
For the local law enforcement officer, the killing will pull him into two worlds; the “been here’s” and the “come here’s”, terms that cogently describe county newcomers versus its natives.
The reader is then taken back some three years and introduced to Perrault and his bride Beth who have recently returned from their honeymoon in France. A weekend escape to the village of Scarcity with its delightful bed and breakfast triggers Perrault’s creativity to bring his flare and entrepreneurism to the backwater---yet beautiful---countryside.
Almost immediately they consider purchasing an old home needing renovation but situated on 235 rolling acres with commanding views of the countryside. The Frenchman instantly falls in love and exclaims, “…I’m buying this!”
The stage is then set for the wealthy out-of-towner to move to the country and create an exclusive French restaurant and store in a nearby village, hopefully changing its rural atmosphere to an oasis for city denizens.
Here the author begins to flesh out the colorful personalities that Sheriff Stryker’s investigation will target. The search for the killer is enriched by spot-on character development offering up numerous suspects with motives to eliminate Perrault.
And Perrault himself, initially described as handsome, talented, driven and creative begins to be colored with negative traits. Most telling is his working relationship with Marcus McGrath, an accomplished contractor hired to renovate his farmhouse. As with most perfectionists, McGrath proceeds slowly producing quality work but at a glacial pace as perceived by his employer.
Concurrently the restaurant owner experiences significant setbacks, most notably the loss of his alcohol license when he cavalierly opens without final approval from the liquor board. Again, his imperious attitude thwarts him and his enterprise leaving him clueless as to why everyone can’t appreciate all the good he doing. His bitterness deepens as his economic woes worsen.
The Frenchman’s personality begins to darken and a strong narcissistic streak emerges. Soon this negativity permeates Perrault’s actions with not only McGrath but many others, including his chefs, staff, artists, neighboring farmers, and law enforcement officers. He’s a driven man rubbing raw those who don’t share his vision and work ethic.
The author’s strength is in creating word pictures that make us care about---or be repelled by---the various suspects’ behaviors while simultaneously keeping us interested in the deceased. Finding the dead lead character both compelling and offensive drives the tale forward. It’s an interesting dichotomy. While many personally experience Perrault’s arrogant and angry behavior they also grudgingly admire him for what he is trying to achieve for the community.
The storyline deepens when Perrault’s relationship with his wife Beth becomes strained. He thinks she is having an affair with his former contractor McGrath and lashes out at her. It also sets the stage for his sexual involvement with a local 17-year-old mulatto named Cocheta. The girl is beautiful and seductive and has a crush on the Frenchman that he ultimately can’t resist.
The ensuing affair unfolds in a secluded abandon cabin that the girl feathers into a love nest. As with previous sexual encounters with his wife, the author describes the lovemaking between the young girl and the older man with intensity and realism driving home the irresistibility of the forbidden assignations.
As Perrault’s life tumbles downward, it is told in tandem with the sheriff’s investigation. The interviewed suspects mount but he’s frustrated no one individual looms as the assumed killer.
With all the suspects interviewed and pressure mounting to solve the killing a confession that underscores the inherent nature of a rural community lays bare the truth. The final action leaves the reader in reflective silence asking the question, what would I have done under the circumstance?
Suzanne Schiffman is a talented story teller who has penned a riveting saga while simultaneously pulling back the layers of relationships between the privileged and the common man. As you put the book aside, quiet consideration underscores that the ending is as plausible and troubling as the story itself.