Tuesday, February 09, 2021

The Rock Hole - Reavis Z. Wortham

When I first picked up Reavis Wortham’s The Rock Hole, I expected it to be a cozy-type mystery with a nostalgic Texas setting. After all, the book’s central character is a small-town Texas constable who is really starting to feel his age, and the book’s sometime-narrator is the man’s ten-year-old grandson, Top. Turns out, I could not have been more wrong; this is a crime novel so gritty that some of what it describes is gruesome enough that some readers will likely find it difficult to read the crime scene descriptions. The escalation of the novel’s intensity sneaks up on the reader as effectively as the villain of the piece sneaks up on his victims, and that makes it even the more shocking.


“As he stared glumly at his coffee, sadness and the futility of a lawman in a changing society swamped over the man who only wanted to do the right thing.” - Description of Constable Ned Parker, The Rock Hole, page 213


It all happens in 1964 in a small Texas community just south of the Red River. Crossing the river, puts you in Oklahoma, but part-time constable Ned Parker doesn’t worry too much about such technicalities. He knows pretty much everybody both sides of the river and understands that anything that happens in Center Springs, Texas, is not going to stay in Texas - and vice versa. Center Springs may as well be one town with a river running through the middle of it. 


Ned really considers himself to be first a farmer, and he’s not wrong about that. His official jurisdiction, when it comes to the law, is a small one and nothing much ever really happens there. He’s mostly called upon to handle town drunks and the like, but now something strange is happening, and Ned is worried. Someone is torturing and killing animals, and there are signs that this is just the start of a crime spree that could escalate into something much, much worse than animal abuse. The tortured animals being discovered in the fields and countryside are getting larger and larger, and the person responsible for the atrocities has taken to leaving pictures of children alongside the dead animals. 


Then, it gets very personal for Ned Parker and his family because someone out there seems to be after his two grandchildren, and he wonders if he will be able to protect them from the killer who wants so badly to snatch them from under his nose. Suddenly, Ned finds himself looking at everyone as a potential killer, and he is so frustrated that he feels like giving up. But that’s not who Ned Parker is - not even close.


Bottom Line: The Rock Hole is the first book in Reavis Wortham’s Red River Mystery series, and this 2011 novel has been followed by seven other Red River Mysteries, including 2021’s Laying Bones. The 1960s small-town atmosphere created by Wortham adds to the fun, but despite the references to Vietnam veterans, etc, the setting strikes me as being more akin to what one would expect in a similar location in the 1940s or 50s than in the mid-1960s. The Rock Hole is very good, and that’s the real “bottom line” here. Perhaps Reavis Wortham was shooting for “country noir” with this one; if so, he nailed it. 


Reavis Z. Wortham

13 comments:

  1. Another author I've never read. Though I'm not sure the grittiness of this one is for me.

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    1. It's pretty intense, especially the last third of the book. I know that lots of people can't read - or don't want to- books that use animal cruelty as part of the plot. There's that in this one, but that's just the beginning of its "grittiness."

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  2. Like Lark this might be too gritty for me. Plus, I get a bit funny when children are involved in these very gritty or psychological crime books. I've read one or two abduction stories which have just about finished me off.

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    1. This one is pretty gut-wrenching, Cath, even though deep in the back of your mind you know it will all come out OK in the end. Few books have gotten to me the way this one did...probably because the victims are animals and children.

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  3. Glad you liked it, Sam... enough to continue with the series?

    The comment you made about the setting feeling more like the 40s or 50s to you was interesting. I was ten in 1965, and Wortham pretty much nailed life in my little farm town.

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    1. I'm going to move on to the second book for sure, Cathy, because I can't wait to see how the new constable fares in the little town.

      I was in high school in '65, Cathy, and had grown up in a little town of just over 12,000 people. Granted, the town is much larger than the ones in The Rock Hole, and that alone would make them seem much more "modern." Too, the Texas Gulf Coast is a whole different world than the Texas Panhandle or anything along the Oklahoma border. I just got the sense that the life portrayed in the plot was more akin to what I recall about the fifties than the sixties. That could be because Texas being so big, I grew up in an entirely different world than this one - even though we were such a small town in more ways than not.

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    2. You did grow up in a whole nuther world, Sam. That "little" town of 12,000 people is a city to me. I grew up in a little farm town with a population of 1,700. I think it's safe to say that we were a bit farther behind the times than kids living in much bigger places.

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  4. I've been interested in this series, and although this one sounds more "noir" than other entries, I'm planning to (eventually) start with the first of the Red River books.

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    1. I just put the second one in the series on hold at my library. It's called Burrows...I'm number one on the list, probably because it goes back to 2012. I'm looking forward to it.

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    2. If you're not claustrophobic, Sam, you might be after reading parts of Burrows.

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    3. I was afraid that's what the title was trying to tell me.

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