Author: Beth Lewis
Performed by Christopher Ragland
Released: June 2018 on Audible, Published by HarperCollins
Category: Crime, Murder, Mystery, Psychological, 1970s Fiction, Audiobook Review
It all started when we found the body.
Then nothing was ever the same.
The Dry meets Stand by Me and True Detective in this stunningly written tale of the darkness at the heart of a small mid-Western town and the four kids who uncover it.
In the heatwave summer of 1971, four kids find a body by a lake and set out to solve a murder. But they dig too deep and ask too many questions.
And John, Jenny, Gloria and Rudy are about to discover that sometimes secrets are best left uncovered…
Set in Larson, a small town in the middle of America’s corn belt, full of seemingly good people and where everything seems perfect on the surface. But secrets and lies abound and the underlying darkness is about to emerge. The story is character driven and told from the perspective of John (Johnny) Royal, a thirteen year old living with his mother and younger sister, Jenny, on a small farm a mile outside of town.
It was during the heat wave summer of 1971 that everything changed. Let out of school early, John, Jenny and their two best friends Gloria and Rudy went to their special place, a shack they’d built in the Roost—a wooded valley with a river running through it. That’s when they discovered the body.
Gloria pointed with her stick. It was just out of arm’s reach, the thing in the roots. But it wasn’t a thing. The closer I got the clearer I saw. Rudy stopped running. He saw it too. Gloria’s face was frowning and pale. Rudy looked at me with hard eyes that said, keep Jenny back. It wasn’t real, it couldn’t be, not here. It was grey skin and hair once blonde like Rudy’s. It was bloated but not unrecognisable. Gloria’s stick left impressions in the skin.
It was a woman and she was dead.
The story spans the years 1971-1973. Things begin to change in Larson during the Vietnam war as the physically and mentally injured soldiers return. Added to this, the combination of persistent heatwaves and lack of rain destroys the crops, threatening financial ruin. Then the body is discovered. The four friends can’t understand why the authorities aren’t doing more to solve what is obviously a murder. They decide to try and find out who she was and why she was killed. They have no idea what the devastating and menacing consequences of their actions will be.
The four of them have differing home lives. John is conflicted, feeling he’s being forced to choose between the mother he loves regardless of the fact she’s drunk, neglectful and mean a lot of the time, and his sister who he is very close to. She fears their mother and what she might do. Gloria’s parents are well to do and she has access to many more material things than the others. Rudy suffers at the hands of his violently abusive father and brother, staying out of their way as much as possible. Each character is well defined but it’s John who is really at the heart of the story. He tries his best to look after his sister and make the right choices as things begin to fall apart, however he’s completely unprepared and unable to handle the situation.
Beth Lewis evokes the setting and time period very effectively. It’s a dark and disturbing tale, evocative and tragic, with shocking twists set in the tense, claustrophobic confines of a small rural town where people know more than they’re willing to admit, underscored with corruption and immorality. The bleak atmosphere and decline is easily imagined. The only thing I would say is that at 14 plus hours it’s quite long and could perhaps have been condensed here and there to pick up the pace. The development of the plot is a slow burn, losing some of the momentum at times. Having said that though, I was invested in the story and couldn’t imagine where it was leading.
Christopher Ragland’s narration is excellent. He has a pleasant voice, the performance is delivered with an authentic southern accent. He gives John’s personality the required intensity, while differentiating well between each character, whether male and female.
About the Author
Beth Lewis was raised in the wilds of Cornwall and split her childhood between books and the beach. She has travelled extensively and has had close encounters with black bears, killer whales, and Great White sharks. She has been, at turns, a bank cashier, fire performer, juggler, and is currently a Commissioning Editor at a leading London publisher. Her debut novel, The Wolf Road, was shortlisted for the inaugural Glass Bell Award. Bitter Sun is her second novel.