- By Kelly J. Ford
- Thomas & Mercer
- 353 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- August 31, 2023
The bard of Ozark crime fiction delivers another tale of corrosive small-town secrets.
Author Kelly J. Ford has made a name for herself in Southern crime noir. Her first two novels, Cottonmouths and Real Bad Things, dripped with the humidity and claustrophobia of small Arkansas towns, limited opportunity, and cramped trailer homes. She knows how to make her readers gasp within the airless spaces.
Her latest, The Hunt, has a different feel, with arguably more breathing room, but fans will be happy to know it is still darkly studded with secrets and rivalries, once again in a place where everyone knows everyone else too well — or perhaps not well at all.
Back in 2005, the local radio station in Presley, Arkansas, came up with an ingenious promotion: Use their clues to find a hidden golden egg and win a tidy sum. It’s been a great tease to bring in tourists and a boon to the local economy. Still, many folks in Presley hope that, after a two-year pandemic hiatus, the hunt won’t resume in 2022. That’s because of the Hunter.
Ever since the inaugural hunt, someone in town has died or disappeared mysteriously each year within a week of Easter. The pattern emerged in residents’ consciousness over time but now is fully part of Presley’s story. People are split between those who see unfortunate coincidence and those who feel certain there’s a killer in their midst.
Nell Holcomb simply wants the hunt canceled forever so that she can stop being reminded. Her brother, Garrett — “white, young, handsome, smart, and dead” — went missing the week before Easter 2005; his body was discovered by a hunter on Easter Sunday, making his the first in the long string of springtime deaths. A high schooler when her big brother went missing, Nell has spent the rest of her life until now stopping conversation whenever she walks into a room. It makes her try to be both hard and invisible.
She is also the guardian of her teenage nephew, Elijah, Garrett’s son. Nell’s best friend and Garrett’s girlfriend, Tessa, didn’t know she was pregnant until after Garrett was buried. When she shows up on Nell’s doorstep with a toddler who looks just like his dead father, Tessa swears she’ll lose her mind having to look at him every day. The sudden responsibility of caring for another person pulls Nell away from her coping mechanisms of intoxicants and gambling.
Ford’s genius is in making her readers feel the essential vibe of the places she describes. Here, it is Mayflower Plastics, the bottle-cap factory where Nell, her close friend, Ada, and a host of Presley residents work 12-hour shifts on the noisy, cold factory floor. We can feel the exhaustion, the struggle to stay awake on the night shift, the grind of boredom, and how it all seeps into the life employees have away from work. The spoken and unspoken currents coursing through the employee breakroom are pitch perfect.
At its heart, the story is a compelling observation of the human need to find patterns in the chaos, to attempt to feel in control over the randomness that is life. The Hunt also seamlessly embeds into the tale social media, with its power to build cohorts and factions — often by using questionable information — its fueling of our depthless fascination with true crime, and its corrosive effects in fomenting division within communities. Here, the divide is not over politics but over the hunt.
Families that have lost loved ones argue to shut it down, but their voices are drowned out by folks like Maggie, the factory foreman’s secretary, who’s filled with insincere friendliness and acts like the mayor of Amity in “Jaws,” discounting any danger and serving as a booster for the “Eggheads” who want the hunt to continue. Even Ada is hooked on the hunt, pinning her hopes for her son, Anthony, on her winning the prize money so she can send him to a good engineering school. It’s hard enough on Nell knowing that Ada hunts; if she knew Ada was enlisting Elijah’s help in the search, it would be too much. But Ada knows Nell is keeping something from her, too, about a new woman in her life. What she doesn’t know is why.
In Ford’s earlier work, the shame associated with being gay in a small town was a significant driver of the plot. Here, Nell’s identity problems spring from being a murdered boy’s sister. Her sexual orientation doesn’t merit any particular attention or comment in Presley; it’s not the gender of the person she’s seeing that makes Nell secretive — it’s her specific identity. The extent to which Elijah, also gay, is thoroughly comfortable in his own skin is a delight; no one is pressuring him to hide his light under a bushel.
The Hunt, by turns arch and creepy, keeps us guessing to the last and delivers a satisfying wrap-up. For readers not yet familiar with Ford’s work, this is the place to start.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.