Set in North Carolina in the early 20th century, this is a fictionalised account of a true crime. Ella Maud – Nell, as she is known – stepped out onto the porch of her family home with her beau, Jim Wilcox and disappeared. The first questions posed are: Was she murdered? Did she commit suicide? Did she run off? Thirty-six days later, her body is found in the river that runs behind her house in a remarkable state of preservation and with a contusion on her temple. After a public outcry against so heinous a crime, Jim Wilcox, the last person to see her alive, is tried – twice – and found guilty.
There are a fistful of characters so believable they leap off the pages as flesh and blood. Even the minor characters are well drawn with distinct personalities. This story is not so much about Nell or her murder. It is the author’s imagining of what might have happened, and he takes us well beyond the bare details of the crime to examine Jim’s inability to forgive himself for the part he played in her disappearance, the pathos of his downward struggle into dereliction, and a family unhinged by the loss of a loved one. It’s also about human strength and frailty and the cruel effects of guilt.
The writing is concise and the dialogue is appropriate to the period. It is one of the best true murder mysteries I have read – perhaps because it is so much more than that.
I have one caveat but it’s a big one. Early on in the book, the author gives us a glimpse into what happened. It is an unnecessary ‘spoiler’. The author could have kept the reader in suspense for longer. It didn’t impair my enjoyment of the book at all. It was just a little irritant. I hope the author will fix it.