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by Charles Fergus
Skyhorse Publishing, March 2019
304 pages
ISBN: 1510738509

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In Adamant, Pennsylvania, in 1835, life is a struggle simply coping with the day-to-day hardships and privations. Add in murder and a generation of evil, and young Sheriff Gideon Stoltz has more than his share of tribulations. But life has its up sides, too. Gideon has a good horse, a loving wife, and a baby boy, and he and his friend judge Hiram Biddle spend pleasant days hunting. At least they did. In the opening scene, Gideon discovers his friend's body in what is obviously a suicide. A short time later, he finds the body of a murdered Pennsylvania Dutchman. Being a Pennsylvania Dutchman himself, and therefore an outsider in the community, Gideon doesn't get much cooperation from his in-laws or the townspeople as he begins asking questions about both the recent deaths and a thirty-year-old murder and hanging that seem to be connected to the present crimes. Nonetheless, he is determined to discover how the deaths are related and why his friend reached a place so absent of hope that the only response was to take his own life.

Charles Fergus's A STRANGER HERE BELOW moves back and forth in time among Gideon's own past, the judge's past, and the present, causing Gideon to look evil squarely in the eye and face demons of all sorts, both his own and those of others, imagined and in the flesh. Luckily for the reader, Gideon doesn't flinch, even when he finds his own life in danger and has to endure deep losses. Because we spend a lot of time with Gideon, both in his head and watching him in action, we get to know him well, and he's an interesting character to know. More minor characters also come through with strong identities that make them intriguing and memorable. The setting is particularly well-drawn, with its well-captured natural elements (Halley's Comet even makes an appearance) and historical detail. Both character and setting enhance the plot, and the plot is a good one with multiple threads that eventually weave a satisfying whole, especially since they plumb the depths of human depravity and cause Gideon to use both intellect and wit to get to the answers.

Fergus plays fair with the reader, too, timing Gideon's discoveries to keep pace with the reader's conclusions. The discoveries also seem to keep pace with a slower time: clues are followed on foot or horseback, so the build-up is a slow burn. That's not to say the story isn't a page-turner, though. It may start fairly gently, but by midway through, you may find yourself reading all night. And don't be taken in by the idea that an older, slower time may mean a less brutal time. In the end, A STRANGER HERE BELOW is deeply disturbing but satisfyingly resolved. And because it is advertised as the first in a new series, we can look forward to more of Gideon Stoltz.

Meredith Frazier, a writer with a background in English literature, lives in Dallas, Texas

Reviewed by Meredith Frazier, March 2019

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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