Monday, May 5, 2014

The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery by Nancy Allen

Because of unexpected distractions, and despite the more-than-usual posts I wrote last month, I have a few reviews pending. This is one of those; I couldn't really write a review without properly mulling over the book, because The Code of the Hills by Nancy Allen is a layered book.

Summary: (from Goodreads) In the Missouri Ozarks, some things aren't talked about... even abuse. But prosecutor Elsie Arnold is determined to change that.

When she is assigned to prosecute a high-profile incest case in which a father is accused of abusing his three young daughters, Elsie is ready to become the Ozarks' avenging angel.

But as Elsie sinks her teeth into the case, everything begins to turn sour. The star witness goes missing; the girls refuse to talk about their father, who terrorizes the courtroom from the moment he enters; and Elsie begins to suspect that their tough-as-nails mother has ulterior motives. To make matters worse, Elsie receives gruesome threats from local extremists, warning her to mind her own business.

While Elsie swears not to let a sex offender walk, she realizes the odds - and maybe the town - are against her, and her life begins to crumble. But amidst all of the conflict, the safety of three young girls hangs in the balance...

My thoughts: I suppose I should stop saying I don't like mysteries, because Witness Impulse just keeps on bringing us some truly amazing ones. That being said, The Code of the Hills, as you can guess from the summary, isn't your usual fast paced thrilling murder mystery. It's a very procedure-focused book, the bad guy is already in jail, is being tried for abusing his daughters. And Elsie, a lawyer, is digging into the family history, trying to piece together a case against the man. 

But things are never as black and white as you'd like them to be. And Nancy Allen tells the story with uncompromising honesty. As Elsie uncovers the secrets of the Taney family, she begins to see a pattern of abuse and lies. Donita Taney, the girls' mother is disturbingly conniving, and though she's been a victim of abuse all her life, you find yourself hating her (and then chiding yourself for that.) From the girls, brazen fifteen year old Charlene stands out, reminiscent of Krystal Weedon. So does the littlest of the girls, whom you see internalizing her fears, too young to place the blame on anyone. 

And then you have Elsie Arnolds, the woman who decided to be a lawyer because of a traumatic experience of an old acquaintance. Elsie's perspective guides you through the story, but she's not the most reliable of narrators. She finds faults in everyone she meets, she makes excuses for herself that she wouldn't for anyone else (say, her boss, for instance), she has low self esteem which peeks through most in her conversations with her mother, she lets her boyfriend treat her like crap, only to turn around and be completely disgusted by what the Taney women get themselves into. It's quite irking, how little empathy Elsie has for the victims, how she wants to play Prospero and fix them, when she can't even sort herself out. Often it seems like the victims are not as important to her as proving herself right. She's hard to like, a gray protagonist, but she means well. And in the end, she redeems herself most convincingly.

The book is thoroughly engaging and has a lot to teach. The difficult topic is carefully dealt with. You wouldn't suspect the ending, because it's not about finding one solution, but putting it all together. The book is well written. But it's not easy to digest. The Code of the Hills by Nancy Allen is no breeze to read. If the summary interests you, if you can deal with bitter truths and don't mind an emotional roller-coaster ride, read this book. 

2 comments:

nishitak said...

Sounds very good. I haven't heard of this book before. The pedophilia bits sound really disturbing though.

Priya said...

Nishita - Those parts are disturbing, but not in a creepy gory way; they are indicated subtly and let's just say, justice is served. It really is a good book, you should check it out!

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