Tuesday, January 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Old Number Five by Castle Freeman

I am a huge fan of Castle Freeman’s work. I recently re-read All That I Have, in preparation for tackling books 2 and 3 of his Lucian Wing series. I ordered book 2, Old Number Five, and was given an estimated delivery date in mid-January, so I was thrilled to receive it before Christmas.


Old Number Five
continues to follow the adventures of the laconic, low-key, Northern Vermont County Sheriff Lucian Wing. His philosophy of law enforcement is to pretty much let things sort themselves out and, generally, things do. He was a wild youth himself before a stint in the Navy straightened him out, so he has a certain sympathy for boys-being-boys. Most of the people he serves in the small towns in his jurisdiction approve of his approach. He’s cheap, and the various town councils mostly want low-budget law enforcement.

Lucian takes the same laid-back approach to his home life, which is a toxic mess. His wife has essentially booted him out so that her boyfriend, Jake, can move in. She keeps in touch when she needs Lucian to come around and fix things. Since he built the house himself and doesn’t want Jake wrecking it, he does his wife’s bidding in a passive-aggressive manner. It’s a small town, so everyone knows his business. Everyone is on his side. But everyone pretty much agrees that the best approach is to wait it out. His wife, Clemmie, will tire of Jake and come back to him. (Why on earth he would want her back is beyond me. And some of her complaints against him seem valid too. Maybe they are right for each other, but what an awful relationship.)

At any rate, Lucian’s current concerns are numerous. His mother is showing signs of Alzheimer’s and he’s not sure what to do about it. A feral dog is increasing its attacks on local livestock and people are spooked. And an attack on a local petty criminal adds to a number of earlier isolated events so that it’s becoming harder to overlook them. The violence is not subtle; it’s more of the literal eye-for-an-eye, chop-off-a-thief’s-hand type, so one might think it’s the work of an oddly Biblically-inspired vigilante. Moreover, the victims’ stories are not believable. They are clearly afraid of worse befalling them should they complain to the law.

Lucian’s approach would be to leave it alone since the victims are not pressing for action. Unfortunately, a big-city, ex-military busybody has moved to the area and gotten himself elected Chairman of the town Selectmen. He insists Lucian begin an investigation, and, when the pace of the investigation doesn’t suit him, he goes above Lucian’s head. The sheriff’s usual feet-dragging method, which has served him so well, isn’t going to cut it.

The writing is tight. The characters are concisely, wonderfully drawn. Lucian is smart and bitterly funny. The novel moves along at a quick pace. The mystery is well-cloaked but clues are sprinkled in enough that the answer slowly dawned on me. And then. . .

It’s a clichĂ© to talk about a “shocking conclusion” but that’s what this was. Appalling, even. In so many ways, it’s appalling. I’m still rejecting what I read, even though it was sort-of brilliant. So now I have to move on to book three.

This series is highly recommended. Start at book one, or even earlier with Go With Me.