“Heaven, earth, and hell draw near. Let all things come.”
Like the rich aroma of a wild game stew hanging from an iron crane over a backwoods fireplace, there is much to savor in Charles Fergus' debut novel, "A Stranger Here Below – A Gideon Stoltz Mystery.
In this fast-paced age of instant gratification, Twitter and one-minute attention spans, it is pure pleasure to slow down in order to immerse oneself in this wonderfully written and pleasurable historical mystery that takes place in 1835 in Colerain County, Pennsylvania.
Gideon Stoltz is of Dutch descent and the new, and very young sheriff, of the small iron ore community of Adamant. With his heavy accent, Gideon finds himself shunned to some degree by his fellow citizens who are mostly Scotch-Irish, and the subject of ridicule, jokes and prejudice.
After a grand day of hunting grouse with his friend Judge Hiram Biddle, they part with a promise to meet the next day to go out once more. When Gideon arrives the next morning, the judge is not present, and after a search of the house, he finds his friend dead in his chair. Judge Hiram Biddle had put a shotgun to his chest and ended his life. Grief-stricken and unable to believe the judge took his own life, Gideon is determined to find out why, and after a reading of some of the judge's old journals, the young sheriff begins to suspect it might have something to do with the fact that 35 years before, Judge Biddle had wrongly convicted and sentenced the wrong man to hang for a murder he did not commit.
Soon a brutal murder occurs and the young father and keeper of the law finds himself more than ever vowing to get to the truth of the judge's suicide and solve this second murder, putting his own life at risk, and going against the strong wishes of his wife; paying no heed to her strong visions and dreams of dark things to come.
One of the most enjoyable parts of this novel are the times when Gideon finds himself alone, following a dark trail through the wild woods of Colerain County seeking answers, feeling the muscles of his horse Maude beneath his legs as he murmurs gently to her while she fords a stream and climbs a bank, while a raven croaks from a snag. Dismounting to drink from his hands pure sweet ice-cold spring water, as Maude clamps blades of grass with sideways swipes of her head nearby. The reader can almost smell the rich dark earth below his boots, and feel the wind through the high trees as they warn of heavy rain and storms ahead.
There is a harsh majesty about this time and place. It's people and their deeds, fears, faith, and superstitions. Charles Fergus transports the reader to the early 1800s and perfectly captures it all on his canvas filled with vivid images, minute details, and luminous prose.
A striking novel, it is rich in atmosphere and plot, one that will have the reader engrossed deep into the night.
Anticipation is high for the second Gideon Stoltz mystery, with the working title, Shadow of Thy Wing, which Skyhorse is publishing in early 2021.
Charles Fergus is the author of 19 books about nature and hunting. The author lives in Lyndon, Vermont with his wife, writer Nancy Marie Brown.