Earl Marcus is a 50-year-old private investigator when he returns to the North Georgia mountain community of his birth to confront demons from his Fundamentalist upbringing as a charismatic preacher’s wayward younger son. He has been summoned to his backwoods birthplace by the elderly African-American granny Lacey who gave him refuge after he was shunned by his father’s church almost 35 years before while still a teenager.
Marcus finds that he has retained the status of prodigal son among his deceased father’s followers at the Church of the Holy Flame—a congregation in which his stern father’s word represented law and among whom he is renowned because of a defiant youthful love affair gone wrong. Marcus finds out that the church’s members seem to be growing restive under the leadership of his older brother Lester and that one church faction insists that his father, RJ, has ascended after death like a modern-day Messiah.
Although Marcus still bears physical and emotional scars from a traumatic religious snake-handling ceremony in which he was bitten and left for dead, he tries to make peace with his past while visiting Granny, who is dying of old age and terminal illness. He also finds common ground with Mary, Granny’s granddaughter and caretaker, who is filling in at the local Sheriff’s department as a deputy on loan from another jurisdiction. Mary is pursuing a few missing persons cases via her work, including that of several young girls who belonged to the Holy Flame Church. Mary is also in search of her investigative predecessor, a Sheriff’s deputy who mysteriously disappeared before her arrival in town.
Marcus kindles a romantic relationship with Mary and begins to follow up on purported sightings of his “resurrected” father at an old well high atop a local mountain. What ensues is an ambivalent search in dark and dangerous places for a shadowy and manipulative parent with whom he has irreconcilable differences.
Throw in characters such as a blind church cemetery caretaker, a corrupt local Sheriff, a cousin with a hidden agenda, and various fire-and-brimstone inspired church zealots and what emerges is a fast-paced tale that has been described as somewhere between Southern gothic and Hillbilly noir. Subplots involve surly neighbors, runaway kids, a lovable stray dog and always the presence of a vengeful God in the background.
This is the first book in a projected mystery series by Hank Early, an Alabama middle school teacher and writer with roots in rural Georgia.
Lisa Kobrin is the Reference Manager and Genealogy Librarian at the May Memorial Library. She can be reached at email@example.com or (336) 229-3588.