Trigger warnings for references to incest and child sexual abuse.
Harlen LeBlanc is a haunted man. If anyone bothered to look closely at him, they’d be able to see it. His house barely has any furniture. He only seems to use his kitchen to brew coffee and always orders the same meal from the cafe in a broken-down town in Texas. He’s always on time for his job as a groundskeeper at the lone local high school and never asks for a raise or a promotion. It isn’t until several chapters into Beasts of the Earth, by James Wade, that we find out why Harlen shuns company. We don’t have to wait that long, however, to learn that his loyalty to good people will pull him out of his reclusiveness. Harlen, you see, cannot abide injustice.
Beasts of the Earth is told in two rapid-fire parts, jumping back and forth in time between the mid-1960s and roughly twenty years later. In the 1980s, we meet Harlen LeBlanc and his simulation of a life. Harlen makes no waves and works enough to keep himself fed, sheltered, and clothed. He makes slight friendships, so as not to be seen as a total curmudgeon. One of those friendships is with a young high schooler, Gene, who skipped so much school that he lost any hope of going to college, no matter how good an athlete he is. Gene managed to get a job alongside Harlen but mostly uses his time to fret about his ex-girlfriend, the girl he skipped so much class for. He wants her back; she doesn’t want to get back together. When that girl ends up brutally murdered on school grounds, Gene is arrested for the crime. Harlen knows that Gene is innocent, so he starts asking questions.
The chapters set in the mid-1960s begin even more bleakly than the ones featuring Harlan. Michael Fischer (you can figure out pretty easily that he is a younger Harlen) lives a marginal life with his mother and sister, scraping by until his violent, monstrous father returns from prison. Michael doesn’t want to steal. He doesn’t want to do any of the things his repellant parents push him to do. He stays for the sake of his little sister until his father forces him into an act so terrible that Michael runs away into the deep swamps of Louisiana. While he finds a small measure of happiness in the swamps with a man who rescues Michael from death by exposure, Michael is never the same. He will always be haunted by his brief years with his biological family.
Beasts of the Earth is the kind of mystery that just keeps getting darker. Harlen (and Michael) run close to the worst things that people can do to each other. What I appreciated most about this book was the detail that Wade poured into creating his settings. You can feel the dust and smell the sweat on the pages. I also appreciated that the ending (while somewhat surprising) was fairly original for an amateur detective story.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.