This Old World (2014), by Steve Wiegenstein

This Old World is the sequel to Slant of Light (, Wiegenstein’s portrait of a 19th Century, egalitarian community set in southeast Missouri. The Civil War is over but the little colony, called Daybreak, has been decimated by bushwhackers and can barely feed itself. The war took most of the men, and few return. As one woman observes, “Two husbands, three boys, three homes lost. That’s what life gives you, but do not try to hold onto it. You’ll just bring yourself pain.”

Charlotte Turner has become the leader by default, though she’s a born leader, versatile and practical, and probably should have been in charge all along. James Turner, the starry-eyed founder, finally returns, but he’s a ruined man. He dreams of the soldiers he saw dying, and Wiegenstein is awfully good at portraying combat with its randomness and lack of glory.

Several minor characters come into prominence and carry the story. Charley Pettibone, an Arkansas Confederate, is forced to confront the humanity of a levelheaded ex-slave, Dathan, and thereby his own humanity.  Michael Flynn is a Unionist so full of anger he can’t settle down to family life, though he tries mightily.

All three interact with the Law and Order League, a motley crew of bushwhackers, somewhere between Baldknobbers and the Ku Klux Klan, that clashes with Daybreak and with Michael Flynn. Dathan emerges as a quiet hero, always there in times of crisis, even as he stays one jump ahead of the white thugs. Briefly, the likable but troubled Pettibone joins the Law and Order League, but he has second thoughts, in part because Dathan confounds his prejudices.

Flynn works like a madman to establish a farm and raise cattle, but can’t control his anger. He courts the Frenchwoman, Marie, and out of despair, and grief for all the war has cost her, she marries Flynn. Then a plague of bad luck descends, and Flynn nearly kills the blameless Marie.

In service of Daybreak and his own conscience, Pettibone goes after the unfortunate, doomed Flynn. He becomes a sheriff’s deputy and a new leader of the settlement. Pettibone is at the core of Daybreak’s renaissance. He finds an admiring young wife to soothe his soul, and he faces the future with modest optimism.

The title This Old World  implies weariness, and certainly Charlotte, James, and Marie—central characters in Slant of Light—are weary. This Old World, however, is fast-paced and efficient, and the weariness and wreckage of war is in the end replaced with hard-won hope. It’s almost as though hope is the only thing that remains.

Movement from the first novel to the second is seamless, but it’s tempting to say that Wiegenstein’s quiet sequel surpasses his original.

The Code of the Hills: an Ozarks Mystery (2014), by Nancy Allen

The Code of the Hills is not a mystery in the whodunit sense, but a legal thriller. The novel was Springfield (MO) writer Allen’s first, and she’s had several sequels, all featuring prosecutor Elsie Arnold. A lawyer and legal scholar, Allen knows what she’s doing, and judging from her amazon entry, she has lots of readers.

Elsie is a bit unusual for a mass market character: she’s an aging party girl, even, as some in the novel observe, a slut. Her addictions to Diet Coke and fast food are also unusual, but they fall within the realm of personal eccentricities every good sleuth must have. Though Elsie’s choices in men are dubious and she drinks too much, she’s fiercely competitive in her pursuit of the truth, and all about integrity in the courtroom. This contrast between her seamy private life and her dedicated public service is oddly endearing and enhances Elsie’s credibility. She’s a bright but flawed human being doing the best she can, and her best is very good.

Elsie’s shallow, glory-seeking supervisor palms off a case of child abuse, perhaps expecting Elsie to lose. She undercuts Elsie throughout the novel, but Elsie digs out damning evidence on a sleazebag named Kris Taney, accused of having sex with his three daughters—and a girlfriend, too, who sometimes watches. Needless to say, Kris has endlessly abused his wife, Donita. Kris is a stereotypical monster, though a recognizable one: burly, domineering, crafty but at the same time stupid, always about to break into violence.

The clever defense attorney pokes some holes in Elsie’s case, implicating Donita and several other characters in a child pornography ring, and Allen throws some meth into the stew as well. Altogether, this family must be just about as bad as white trash gets.

There’s one more ingredient: the code of the hills business. No matter how bad a man is, he’s one of our own, and we’ll rally around him. Bands of whacked-out evangelicals, as extreme as Fred Phelps’ Westboro bunch, appear in court to support Kris Taney, and harass Elsie, the liberal jezebel, outside it. This is the code of the hills, according to Allen, but the notion seems more paranoid than real. That common citizens in rural Missouri are likely to be hostile to the likes of Elsie shouldn’t come as a surprise, and Allen stacks the deck with her crazies.

To one smart cop’s—in schlock romance parlance, the approved suitor’s—credit, he forces Elsie to attend an evangelical service, and she learns, or sort of learns, that not everyone in southern Missouri is keen on enabling rapists. The scene is agreeable but somehow fainthearted.

If we are to believe rural Missouri is so full of degenerates, we ought at least to say the same about Alabama, Maine, Saskatchewan and, Lord knows, the Hamptons. Otherwise, Allen’s novel is yet another contribution to the flyover notion that the Ozarks is full of ignorant, incestuous hillbillies, rather than run-of-the-mill Trump voters. Those Trump voters are, to be sure, rather harder to portray.

The suspense Allen builds through 467 pages never lets up—except at the end of the novel, when one of the crazed evangelicals gets Elsie alone and threatens her with, well, God knows. Elsie stabs him in the eye with a sharp pencil, and the world probably divides here, between those who cheer for this sort of melodrama and those who think the scene contrived and silly. It undercuts and devalues the preceding narrative. That narrative, with its assured portrait of life in the courtroom, legal maneuvers, and negotiations among participants, is awfully well-done.