"A Hard Case," by Ron Hess
Photo by Jenny Neyman
A Hard Case
By Ron Hess
Published by The Fiction Works
Alaska with its rustic dangers, eccentric inhabitants and so very many places to dispose of evidence continues to inspire mystery writers' imaginations. While some locals have made national names for themselves in the genre, others hope to follow in their footsteps.
One such is Ron Hess of Homer. "A Hard Case," his second novel, came out this past winter.
Despite the vague name, overall it is an engaging page turner.
"A Hard Case" tells the first-person tale of Leo Bronski, a midlevel postal employee shackled to alcoholism and a tragic past. His exasperated boss exiles him to Howe's Bluff, a fictional western Alaska village.
Bronski's primary task is to serve as temporary postmaster after his predecessor is discovered swinging from a noose in a shed. His secondary mission is to poke around, because the-powers-that-be suspect the death may not have been a suicide.
When Bronski steps off the plane in Howe's Bluff, his baggage includes a surly attitude and a stash of contraband whisky. He finds an unprepossessing village of wary women and hostile men. The place arouses all his doubts:
"That old creepy crawl feeling I had known in Nam started sliding down my back and instinctively I looked around, as if I was back in the jungle. It had been a long time since that feeling and I wanted no part of it," Bronski tells us.
"Damn the boss. What had he gotten me into?"
Through Bronski's eyes we meet the cast of villagers: the tightlipped but efficient twins who staff the post office, an inscrutable elder who occupies its lobby, a skeptical village public safety officer, a vulnerable brain-damaged girl who wanders the area and a nosy young boy growing up the hard way. Most people give Bronski a chilly reception.
"I felt I couldn't win," he says. "I was a white government worker in their eyes and that was enough for a hard stare."
For a while, Bronski and the story spin their wheels. The narrator wallows in his own problems, focuses on maintaining his booze supply and has few clues regarding his predecessor's demise. But things heat up when Bronski clashes with Ivan, an angry and arrogant young man with things to hide, and when he cozies up to Helen, a glamorous Creole beauty willing to reveal plenty.
Hess does a good job portraying Bronski as a man combining intelligence and stupidity, decency and degeneracy. The protagonist can be insightful one moment, yet the next be more interested in checking out a woman's cleavage than her motivations. We see how his reflexes and judgment vary depending on his blood-alcohol level, and how his assessment of his surroundings evolves over time.
Gradually Bronski penetrates the community's facades and earns his way into the residents' lives. As the danger around him grows, he rediscovers inner strengths, culminating with an unusual detox experience.
The plotting begins slowly and builds momentum. As Bronski learns more about his new neighbors, bad things begin happening. Eventually he discovers dangerous opponents are toying with his fate.
For both the reader and the protagonist, the author keeps the surprises coming.
Hess skirts the line between originality and stereotyping when portraying village life and secondary characters. The dusty four-wheeler paths and the fishbowl social atmosphere (in which most people are related and know too much about each other) ring true. But the prevalence of substance abuse and absence of local authority figures don't. And while most of the supporting cast members emerge as interesting individuals, some remain underdeveloped.
Particularly problematic is the injection of the supernatural into the story. Does every Alaska village have a cryptic shaman who knows things other people don't? The author tosses in a few vague spiritual references with little tie-in to the main plot.
Hess leaves several such loose ends in the background, but his main story line stays strong and focused throughout.
This is no cozy crime novel. It is masculine and hard edged, with plenty of action and even a bit of sex along with its mystery. The author shows rare skill in balancing the thrilling with sensitive subject matter.
Hess knows how to write and shows real promise. Bronski, ornery and flawed as he is, earns our respect and affection. Likewise, "A Hard Case" isn't perfect but it is easy to like.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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