Small Town, Big Mystery
Edgar Award Winner Brings First Novel to Festival
By Hannah Koeller
“Do field research.”
First-time Festival of Books attendee and winner of the 2015 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, Tom Bouman gives this simple advice to aspiring authors. The Pennsylvania native took his own advice to heart when writing his mystery, Dry Bones in the Valley.
“I was concerned with accuracy, fairness, and humanity,” he said. “I’d read books, but I really wanted to know what it was like for a rural police officer to confront debilitating drug use in the community, so I talked to our local cop, who was most helpful.”
Dry Bones in the Valley tackles the issues of gas drilling, the drug trade, and secrets and feuds that go back generations in rural northeastern town Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania. “What I really wanted to get across was that drug use and the drug trade is not external, but in many senses within the community, and for that reason not easily dismissed or ignored.”
Drilling, Drugs and Death
The novel’s main character is Officer Henry Farrell, the elderly, lone police officer of a small town near the northern border. While he expects to spend his time hunting, fishing, and otherwise relaxing, he faces the issues of gas drilling invading the area, the drug trade pushing heroin into the territory, and outlaws cooking meth in the woods. When Henry discovers a dead stranger on his land, his investigation will, the words of the publisher, “open old wounds, dredge up ancient crimes, and exact a deadly price.”
The idea for this novel had been building for quite a while. Bouman always wanted to write a mystery, but aside from some early attempts at literary novels, got lost in editorial work. But a few years back, he became worried about the hydro fracking taking place in northeastern Pennsylvania, where he grew up.
“Some of the crucial characters and places were inspired by people and places I knew growing up, some by more recent experiences, some by pure research or imagination, but at the novel’s heart, I think, was Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains region where I was raised.”
Surrendering to the Story
Similarly, Bouman says setting the novel in northeastern Pennsylvania felt like less of an obligation and more of a surrender. “Once I allowed myself to write the story I wanted, where I wanted, no matter what the general interest in it would be, everything fell into place.”
One remaining challenge was finding Henry’s voice. Bouman notes that while the character is an unconscious blend of friends, neighbors, family members, and so on, the inspiration that brought Henry to life came to him one morning in a unique way. “I remember waking up one early morning and hearing his voice,” he said. “That may sound mystical, like some kind of visitation, but that’s how it felt.”
Bouman tells us that in his second novel, a sequel to Dry Bones in the Valley, he hopes Henry finds romance and happiness. “The second novel will likely take place across two successive summers, and involve crimes both internal and external to the Wild Thyme community. There will be a disappearance.”
As for the Festival, Bouman is quite looking forward to exploring the event’s location later this year. “I’m particularly excited that the festival will be held in Deadwood. And I love the outdoors and the West, so at some point I’ll probably disappear into the Black Hills.”
Let’s hope he resurfaces in time to finish his second novel!