Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: "Hell at the Breech" by Tom Franklin

Over the past few years, Tom Franklin has become one of the most consistent and interesting authors I have come across. Like Flannery O’Conner with big snarling teeth, Franklin is in the forefront of Southern Gothic/Country Noir authors with stories steeped in Southern mythology, rich history and more than a little blood and guts. My first experience was with his breakthrough novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, set in modern times, much different than his other books; I was impressed by his fleshed-out characters and the web of mystery and violence they found themselves in, all with the unmistakable tint of sadness and anger woven throughout. I was less impressed by his first book, the short story collection Poachers, and his most recent publication, The Tilted World, co-written by his wife Beth Ann Fennelly, but each had a charm that kept me interested and invested. And last year, I read his second novel Smonk, which may be one of the ten most violent books I have ever read. It tells a crazy story of bloodshed with the blackest of humor that may not be to everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed the heck out of it. His first novel, Hell at the Breech, based on a true story, feels like the book Franklin was meant to write. It is both bigger and more epic than Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and way more mature than Smonk, and has an emotional core that is invigorating, exciting and heartbreaking. The events of the story, which are based on events that happened mere miles from
where Tom Franklin grew up, focus on a town named Mitchum Beat during the last years of the 19th century. After the murder of a well-respected citizen with political aspirations is killed, a group of vigilante who take the name Hell-at the-Breech, cut a bloody swath across the town, killing all those they think are involved, and any innocents they feel get in there way. The effects of this rampage are seen through the experiences of four town citizens, the main being the ageing and morally straight Sheriff Waite, who vows to uphold the law and end the violence. The three others are the Widow Gates an old, midwife who birthed nearly all of the gang’s members with supposed mystical powers, Ardy Grant, a former town member turned detective with a murderous past and a thirst for vengeance, and finally, Macky Burke, a young town clerk who knows more about the initial killing than he lets on. The book is paced well, with plenty of actions scenes that can excite or disgust, one of the trademarks of Franklin’s storytelling abilities. A few standout characters include Ardy Grant and one of the gang members named Lev James, both of whom have short tempers and bone chilling propensities toward violence and murder, and are people you’d likely find in the world of Smonk. The ending shootout gets repetitive, even with another revelation which changes most of the story, and the final story, added to the paperback edition, doesn’t really add much, but this story, of guilt, revenge and the hold a person’s place of birth over their actions and emotions entertained me and moved me the way only a writer as generous and talented as Franklin can.

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