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.

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