I thought I was getting a standard murder mystery book. Instead, I got a story that went so much deeper.
The Distant Dead by Heather Young
A body burns in the high desert hills. A boy walks into a fire station, pale with the shock of a grisly discovery. A middle school teacher worries when her colleague is late for work. By day’s end, when the body is identified as local math teacher Adam Merkel, a small Nevada town will be rocked to its core by a brutal and calculated murder.
Adam Merkel left a university professorship in Reno to teach middle school in Lovelock seven months before he died. A quiet, seemingly unremarkable man, he connected with just one of his students: Sal Prentiss, a lonely sixth grader who lives with his uncles on a desolate ranch in the hills. The two outcasts developed a tender, trusting friendship that brought each of them hope in the wake of tragedy. But it is Sal who finds Adam’s body, charred almost beyond recognition, half a mile from his uncles’ compound.
Nora Wheaton, the middle school’s social studies teacher, dreamed of a life far from Lovelock only to be dragged back on the eve of her college graduation to care for her disabled father, a man she loves but can’t forgive. She sensed in the new math teacher a kindred spirit–another soul bound to Lovelock by guilt and duty. After Adam’s death, she delves into his past for clues to who killed him and finds a dark history she understands all too well. But the truth about his murder may lie closer to home. For Sal Prentiss’s grief seems heavily shaded with fear, and Nora suspects he knows more than he’s telling about how his favorite teacher died. As she tries to earn the wary boy’s trust, she finds he holds not only the key to Adam’s murder, but an unexpected chance at the life she thought she’d lost.
Weaving together the last months of Adam’s life, Nora’s search for answers, and a young boy’s anguished moral reckoning.
Let’s look at the thriller side of The Distant Dead first. It is definitely what you would call a slow burner. The author very carefully drips bits of information into the storyline, not so much or often that you guess the outcome easily, but also enough that the book doesn’t feel dragged out. It is grim in its detail and it is certainly a whodunnit, however, if you are looking for a murder mystery to binge, it might be best to choose another book.
But let me tell you what you will love about The Distant Dead.
What’s grimmer than Adam’s murder is the look the author gives us into small-town America. For many of the characters in this book, there is no life beyond Lovelock – and no opportunities within it either. On top of that, we see how the town is overrun with drugs, with a particular dependency on prescription drugs. With most of the main characters, we also see individual struggles: Nora wants nothing more than to leave Lovelock but is bound there to look after her father; Sal is an outcast thanks to his family background and lack of money, and many of the characters have suffered the death of a loved one.
Saying that, there is also a lot of love in this book. Sal has many people that care about him; Nora’s best friend loves her life in Lovelock and is heavily invested in promoting a sense of community there; Gideon (Sal’s uncle) may not have a lot but he enjoys his job as a furniture maker. I’m really glad that the author gave us these glimmers of hope and didn’t completely sell out small-town life in the US.
The Distant Dead won’t be for everybody but I am sure there are a lot of readers out there who will enjoy it. If you feel like you could be one of those readers, pick up your copy of the book here.
I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.