“Blackwood” (Little, Brown), by Michael Farris Smith
A foul, scrawny man in a broken-down Cadillac seems to have run out of options when his car’s engine dies shortly after it rolls into a town in Mississippi hill country.
The year is 1975 and the town, Red Bluff, is as economically depressed as the grim man. He is with a woman and a teenage boy, both thin and hungry, and a baby in diapers. The future does not look good for any of them.
It is the past, however, that drives events in “Blackwood,” a quickly moving mystery novel in the Southern noir genre.
Many years before the arrival of the man in the Cadillac, a toddler’s death and a suicide left an enduring mark on Red Bluff. A tunnel and hideout dug deep in a cave during the slave era also loom menacingly.
The novel’s author, Michael Farris Smith, turns the silent spread of kudzu vine on the outskirts of town into a key element in the story: “In time the opening to the cave had been covered like everything else. The kudzu methodical. Skulking across the land with a demented patience and it had taken a century but the rolling hills were now covered.”
The return to Red Bluff of another man, Colburn Evans, quickens the narrative. He creates art from found objects scavenged from the town while prowling in his flatbed truck. He also finds romance, a glimpse into his own family history — and trouble.
Colburn’s love interest is Celia, a young red-headed woman who runs a Red Bluff bar. When he first sees her, she’s wearing jeans with holes at the knees and is walking barefoot on downtown streets, now lined with vacant storefronts. She beckons him to follow her. They have family secrets to share.
“Blackwood” is a solid page turner, written in smooth prose. It includes staples of Southern noir, such as a good ol’ boy sheriff, a psychic reader, a gaunt teen lurking at night, lots of beer drinking and folks gone missing.