“There was a saying among these people: A dry year will scare you to death, and a wet year will kill you.” This sense of perpetual dread permeates Dane Bahr’s evocative debut, THE HOUSEBOAT (Counterpoint, 242 pp., $26), which chronicles an especially volatile year in Oscar, Iowa — a year when the Mississippi River town turned on its own as the weather moved from drought to torrents: “Four days of hard rain and the river became a butcher. It would rip at the banks as it swelled and cleave the edges of cropland like a knife to brisket.”
Just outside town, a girl, discovered in the woods, claims her boyfriend has been murdered, though no one has found a body. Still, the collective suspicion lands on Rigby Sellers, a loner who lives in a rotting houseboat on the river with only a creepy salvaged mannequin for company: “He’d often talk to her. Sometimes try to feed her. … He’d dress her up and comb his fingers through her abrasive hair and tell her how pretty she was.” Sellers seems impervious to increasingly lurid rumors about his character and behavior. When the local sheriff enlists the help of a detective, events spin ever darker.
Bahr deftly moves back and forth in time; his short chapters, which feature the perspectives of different townspeople, add to the feeling that the enormity of the horror cannot be fully comprehended. “The Houseboat” reminded me of works by Robert Bloch strained through a more literary — but quite welcome — sensibility.
In the village of Shady Hollow — “nestled deep in the woods, covering a wide valley between two mountains” — folks drink coffee at Joe’s Mug, buy the latest releases from Nevermore Books and get their news from The Shady Hollow Gazette. Every so often, the bucolic little town is shaken up by murder. And oh yeah, one more thing: All the residents are animals.
COLD CLAY (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 221 pp., paper, $16), the second outing from Juneau Black, the pen name of the authors Jocelyn Cole and Sharon Nagel, was originally self-published in 2017. In it, Vera Vixen, the paper’s star reporter, is investigating the discovery of old moose bones in an apple orchard and trying to clear Joe Elkin, the coffee shop’s owner as well as the victim’s husband. She’s also trying to figure out why a fancy silver-coated mink has moved to town.
Black’s books — “Shady Hollow,” “Cold Clay” and “Mirror Lake,” which will be reissued next month — have become my favorite new comfort reads. The plotting is sharp, the prose lean and the atmosphere pure joy. Vixen and the rest of the critters never feel like anthropomorphic Disney cartoon characters. I eagerly await a fresh infusion of Shady Hollow mayhem.
Sarah Weinman’s Crime column appears twice a month.