December’s Thorn by Phillip DePoy is the seventh book in the Fever Devilin mystery series, set in rural Georgia (available January 22, 2013).
I’m new to author Phillip DePoy and his Fever Devilin series, but as I got into December’s Thorn, it didn’t take me long to gather that Fever has been through an awful lot in his previous six books. Fever is a resident of Blue Mountain, a tiny town in the Georgian Appalachian Mountains, and in Blue Mountain eccentric passions run high. Even as a former academic, a folklorist by training, Fever can’t avoid danger. For one thing, in his previous adventure, Fever nearly died after being shot. So Fever’s fiance Lucinda and his friend Sheriff Skidmore and concerned psychiatrist Ceridwen Nelson keep reminding him. Of course it’s clear that medical treatment saved Fever’s life, but his return to actual day to day living only occurred after he spent three months in a coma. Off that experience he may be ready for a calm period, but quiet and calm won’t come to him.
On a cold night not long before Christmas, a strange woman appears at his door “dressed in widow’s black, pale and gaunt.” She has “a pretty face, in some way, despite an overwhelming sorrow in her eyes.” Fever has never seen her before—he is certain of this—but the news she has for him surprises, considering that he’s engaged to be married:
“It’s me, Fever,” she said, her eyes rimmed in red. “It’s your Issie. Your wife.”
I don’t know how long I stared at her, hand on the doorknob, before I stepped aside.
“Please come in,” I said as gently as I could.
She does, and by the end of the first chapter she drops a second bombshell on him.
“Here is my news, Fever,” she said, wincing. “There is a child.”
Despite his shock and the obvious thought that he is dealing with a disturbed woman, Fever remains polite with her. He offers the stranger coffee or tea so she can warm up. This gesture, like the gentleness he uses to speak to her, marks him as a man of grace. Fever Devilin, it is apparent, doesn’t get flustered easily, and his manners are impeccably southern
The same can be said for December’s Thorn as a whole. It’s a mystery thriller with a completely southern feel, the characters oddball and loquacious. Issie vanishes into the night as quickly as she appeared in Fever’s life, and Fever then does a lot of talking to convince Lucinda and the sheriff that the woman is real. They believe he imagined her, his overactive imagination a product of the lingering effects of his coma. That’s when Fever first meets Ceridwen Nelson, summoned to his house by Lucinda, and despite all the agitation he has suffered and his frustration at not being believed, Fever can’t resist showing off his folkloristic knowledge:
“Ceridwen is a fertility goddess, a poetic muse, and even sometimes considered to be the Lady of the Lake in the Arthurian cycle.”
She insists he call her “Ceri”, not Dr. Nelson, but he can’t quite figure out what her objective is.
“Are you here to help me with the troubled woman who came to my house last night or are you here to help Nurse Foxe [Lucinda] convince me that I was dreaming.”
Dr. Nelson’s smile grew brighter. “Which would you prefer?”
“Which would I prefer?” I snapped back.
“How about this,” Dr Nelson said, before I could get anything else out. “If the woman is real, I’ll help her. If she’s not, I’ll help you.”
“Either way, Fever,” Lucinda said soothingly, “she’s here to help, all right?”
Everyone close to Fever seems to think he needs help, and they put it to him in ways that are quite colorful.
“Fever,” Skidmore began, “you’ve been back home for, what? Eight, nine years now? In that time you have found countless dead bodies; dozens of people have tried to kill you. You’ve been nearly killed a half dozen times, and legally dead twice. You’ve seen ghosts, witches, time travelers, racist murderers, and an albino dwarf! ... As for seeing this woman last night, I’ve come to take nearly everything you ever say with about a half a pound of salt.”
“Add to that,” Dr. Nelson chimed in, “the fact that you’re currently under a psychiatrist’s care, so all your perceptions are called into question.”
For a good part of the book, there is this kind of repartee. Fever, the detective, has to explain himself just to try to prove he’s sane. It’s a funny reversal on the usual image of the commanding detective, the assertive private eye questioning people and dealing with everyone else’s problems. This particular detective is something of a mental patient treated like an unreliable witness, and the frustration he expresses over his predicament had me laughing often.
Things hit rock bottom for Devilin when his very existence is called into question. Aside from the wife nobody believes he saw, he describes how soon after her visit, a boy of ten or twelve shot out his kitchen window with a hunting rifle. It has again transpired that he alone saw the figure he talks about, and he theorizes that the boy might be the son of the woman who claims she’s his wife.
He addresses Ceridwen and Skidmore:
“But what about this boy, this shooting?” I asked them both.
“This incident with the boy?” she answered. “It’s what I like to call ancillary madness. When someone like you gets this far into trouble, you become a magnet for all kinds of strange things. Not just you. It happens to lots of people really. In your case, though, I think it may have been going on with you for quite some time. Even before your coma. You’re a kind of psychic magnet for bizarre events. But the condition has clearly gotten worse since you were in your coma—or, really, since you died. And there we have it. That’s primarily what interests me. That’s why I’m here.”
“I don’t understand,” I told her, feeling a rising anxiety, like a giant horse about to leap out of my chest.
“I think you died,” she answered solidly. “I think that when that happened, a certain kind of psychic energy attached itself to you, and you brought it back with you. It acts like a magnet for—for all kinds of things. To make matters worse, or to exaggerate the effects of this energy: I think you’re stuck, right now, between life and death. You see and experience things—and they’re all real to you—but the rest of us can’t see them, or know them, or understand them.”
“That’s why you think you’re here?” I asked. “To help with that?”
I glanced at Skidmore. He looked almost as upset as I felt.
“It’s not exactly what I told Lucinda,” she went on, “or the hospital, or the sheriff, here—but, yes. That’s why I’m here. To pull you out of the doorway because you’re stuck between life and death.”
I swallowed hard, staring into her eyes. She sounded insane to me, and I knew that Skidmore had already decided she was in worse shape than I.
The problem was, I agreed with her. I believed every single syllable of what she’d said. And I was terrified.
We have a whiff of the supernatural here, adding to the overall air of mystery. It’s a sign that DePoy is having fun with the mystery novel form, playing with some of its standard conventions. Will this story have an ultimate explanation not entirely rational? Is our detective-narrator trustworthy in his perceptions? Suffice it to say that as the plot unfolds, the action plays out as a kind of externalization of Fever’s psychological conflicts and fears, and what is interesting is how all the action is confined to the immediate area around his house. Events take place in his house proper, just outside it on Blue Mountain, and in a series of complicated caves within the mountain that even Fever acknowledges as a representation of his subconscious. His verbal acknowledgement of what the reader is thinking is humorous, but then again these are characters who do love to analyze and comment on everything that happens to them. Phillip DePoy is a playwright as well as a novelist, and his love of talk and skill with dialogue is evident on every page of this book. In fact, there’s more talk than action in the novel, or you could say that in Fever Devilin’s world, the talkis the action. But it’s talk of a witty, entertaining nature, and the plot itself is advanced through the dialogue.
With Ceridwen at his side, Fever becomes more active and forceful as the novel moves along. Though he recognizes that “a plethora of insanity already abounds, abroad in the land”, not everyone may be quite as crazy as they first appear. The line between psychoses and playacting is one that Fever must distinguish between, and the things he discovers about the mysterious Issie and the boy who shot at him dovetail with his knowledge of folklore, in particular the ancient Celtic legend of Tristan and Iseult. I liked the way Fever’s expertise plays an integral role in solving the central mystery; by the book’s end, no longer reactive, he is in command. Fever explains the keys to the riddles like any classic detective who is the smartest person in the room. That the answers lie connected to old stories makes perfect sense—this is the South, where history lives. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
December’s Thorn is a fun read. With its excellent talk, singular characters, and unusual storyline, I think it will appeal to mystery fans with a taste for the offbeat.
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Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. A film nut as well as a writer, he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His Martinique-set crime novel, Spiders and Flies, is available now from Harvard Square editions.