“Really Bad Things” by Kelly J. Ford. Thomas & Mercer, 364 pages, $15.95
Southern noir has had an impact on detective fiction for several years, but dark fiction set in the Ozarks has emerged more recently. Perhaps this trend could stem from the influence of the television series “Ozark” or the movie “Winter’s Bone”, based on Daniel Woodrell’s brilliant 2010 novel.
But that’s more likely because the region has been largely an untapped reservoir of good stories.
Kelly J. Ford made her foray into black Ozark in 2017 with her critically acclaimed stand-alone “Cottonmouth.” Ford returns to this Ozark milieu with the absorbing “Real Bad Things,” which follows a woman forced to return to her hometown to come to terms with her past.
Jane Mooney left her abusive mother and impoverished hometown of Maud Bottoms, Ark., some 25 years ago for Boston, where she relished that no one knew about her past. But Boston didn’t work. Over the past few months, Jane has broken up with her girlfriend, lost her job and her apartment, and her savings have dwindled.
Now her abusive mother, Diane, is demanding that she return home after human remains are found in the Arkansas River. It’s assumed to be what’s left of Warren Ingram, Jane’s brutal stepfather and Diane’s husband. Jane was 17 when she confessed to killing Warren, but she was never charged because no body and no evidence was found. In addition, over the past few decades, more than 23 men – “never women” – have gone missing, presumed to have drowned in the river that “smells like poplar” or simply left their families and their low-paying jobs. Jane is sure she has returned to be arrested for murder, but a new police detective’s investigation reveals myriad contradictions.
“Real Bad Things” works well as a look at the region, as a character study and an exploration of power. Jane and her half-brother, Jason, with whom she is reuniting, were raised in violence, finding “comfort in a shared sadness”. They grew accustomed to abuse from their mother as well as that of her string of boyfriends.
They also discovered how little power they had. If the police showed up at their home to investigate the abuse, nothing would happen; the police were more likely to side with the men than the children.
Jane has learned to excel at “how to wrap her heart up and move on.” Most people in Maud Bottoms and some in nearby Maud Proper knew Jane was gay, but it was her poverty, her mother’s antics, and drunken behavior that made her an outsider.
Ford’s assured writing finds beauty in “Real Bad Things” – not in the violence but in the characters’ ability to survive, reinvent themselves, and chart a future for themselves, especially Jane. No matter how bad things get, Ford shows hope in “Real Bad Things.”
Best Friend by Jessica Fellowes. Minotaur, 320 pages, $26.99
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Jessica Fellowes has built a career with her involving the historical series Mitford Murders and her five official books accompanying the television series “Downton Abbey”, created by her uncle, Julian Fellowes.
Fellowes takes a decidedly different approach with his unconventional standalone “The Best Friend,” which functions as both a historical and contemporary novel. “The Best Friend” unfolds with snippets of conversation alternating with exposition to further define the plot that explores female friendship and betrayal. Set in England, “The Best Friend” spans over 75 years, but the story never seems tied to a single era and could easily have started this year, or decades earlier.
Shy Bella, who lives with her grandmother, instantly befriends gregarious Kate, whose family seems to be prosperous. But at 17, Bella feels betrayed when Kate openly flirts with a boy she likes and then walks away with his family. Kate promises to write and keep in touch but never does. Bella never even knows where in England Kate’s family has settled.
The two reunite when Bella sees a flyer about a play Kate is performing in. Despite a heartfelt reunion, the two again lose contact.
At 42, they meet again when Kate, her husband and her son settle in the neighborhood of Bella. Kate’s career is drying up while Bella, married with one daughter, is a successful painter of highly sought-after portraits. Bella finds herself “caught up in this friendship again”, overshadowed by Kate’s personality while also resentful of Kate’s betrayals and abandonment over the years.
“The Best Friend” takes an unusual route to illustrate a destructive friendship leading to fatal turns along the way. Fellowes’ use of revealing dialogue sets an easy vibe that delves into the girls’ personalities as they age and ultimately become women in the 80s.
Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at [email protected].