Thursday, January 7, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Children of the Valley by Castle Freeman

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I just finished Children of the Valley by Castle Freeman, jumping right into it after finishing Old Number Five.

When reading books in series that I love, I’ve found that extraordinary books are often followed by books that don’t excite me as much. Unfortunately, that’s the case here. Children of the Valley is an entertaining mystery/thriller. It would work fine as a standalone. In fact, it probably would work better as a standalone. I liked it less because, as a follow-up to Old Number Five, it’s disappointing.

Lucian Wing remains the same brave, dogged, but slow-motion law enforcer, the sheriff of a rural Northern Vermont county. An indeterminate amount of time has passed since the last book, which can be judged somewhat by the aging of Lucian’s mentor, the previous sheriff, Wingate. The current dilemma is that Lucian’s county is playing host to two runaway teenagers, a local boy who made good as a high school football player and a young rich girl named Pamela, who’s gone AWOL from boarding school. Pamela’s stepfather sends a few New York City goons to retrieve her. One of them, a slick lawyer-type, tries to enlist Lucian to locate the girl for them. (There is some question as to the intentions of the stepfather and some hints of abuse.) Lucian finds the pair, but rather than turn them in, he helps them to hide. Lucian’s usual pals (Homer, Cola, and Wingate) join in the fun. Things get violent.

The plot is a bit uneven but holds together well enough. Lucian’s voice and folksy wisdom are as enjoyable as ever. (And by that, I mean very enjoyable.) As an individual book, this is enough to recommend it.

The problem I have is that there’s no continuity to the series. Issues raised in the previous book are not merely swept under the rug; they don’t exist. Lucian’s mother with Alzheimer’s and overbearing brother? Absent. Not even a passing reference. Also, Lucian seems to be chronically looking for a decent deputy. In each of the previous books, we were introduced to wonderful characters, potential new deputies that I would love to have seen more of. They’re gone without a word. Still, if the core cast of characters is maintained without the addition of new long-timers, I can let go of newbies even if I liked them. And minor plot threads, like the declining mother, don’t have to be woven into the next instalment. That wasn’t my main objection.

The thing that disturbed me was that bombs were dropped at the end of the last book. One reason I picked up book three right away was to see how the author would sweep up the mess. Now I’m not sure how to interpret the ending of Old Number Five. Maybe Lucian’s betrayal of his own code of behavior wasn’t really a big deal to him. Which is sad because, for me, it really lessens the impact of the book. And are he and his wife simply settling down as an old married couple? Were they were just joking around at the end of the previous book? It could just have been a joke that I didn’t get. Or maybe it’s just that Lucian is doubling down on the philosophy that whatever the problem, it’s better to do nothing than to do something. I guess it would be consistent with his character to do his best to ignore a problem and hope it sorts itself out, but that’s not always satisfying for the reader.

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