Review: In the Valley of the Devil by Hank Early
By Gabino IglesiasJuly 12, 2018
In the Valley of the Devil by Hank Early is the second book in the Earl Marcus Mystery series, where the private investigator—who thought he’d conquered his demons after vanquishing the malevolent spirit of his fundamentalist preacher father—must face something much more terrifying than the devil he knew.
Hank Early’s Earl Marcus series stands alone in contemporary mysteries because it engages with all the classic elements of the genre but does so while bringing something special to the table. On one hand, the novels flirt with horror and the surreal in ways that keep readers guessing almost until the last page. On the other, there is an underlying theme of religion and fanaticism running through the narratives that puts many ongoing sociopolitical issues into perspective. With In the Valley of the Devil, Early cements his position as one of the most innovative voices in mystery and proves he’s an author who isn’t afraid to tackle important issues without sounding preachy or compromising entertainment.
Earl Marcus thought he had found a new life after confronting his father, his church, his past, and the town that saw him grow up in the shadow of an evil man. After taking down his father and his Church of the Holy Flame, Marcus finds love and decides to stick around, eventually finding work as a private investigator in the North Georgia Mountains.
Unfortunately, his peace doesn’t last long. A new job takes him into Tasked with what seems like a routine investigation, but Earl stumbles into a mysterious cornfield with a shady history where an old, spooky mountain legend allegedly lives—and it seems to have awakened. The case goes from routine to awful when his girlfriend, Mary Hawkins, vanishes while helping him look for something rumored to be hiding in the middle of the cornfield. Panicking, angry, and out of options, Earl tries his best to find Mary while also trying to discover who and what are behind the cornfield, figure out what movies have to do with everything, take care of two kids, and do his best to fight a racist man whose local connections and appeal rival Earl’s own father.
As the tension grows and times runs out, horrible dreams keep Earl on edge, and the legend everyone is talking about has stepped out of the realm of legends and is hurting people in the real world. What follows is an unnerving, fast-paced, violent narrative about a desperate man fighting a racist group comprised of some of the wealthiest citizens in the area while a monster threatens to put an end to everything he loves.
The first thing that should be said about this novel is that it does more than pick up where the first book left off—it takes the character, the place, and the supporting cast to the next level. The growth of Earl Marcus could be expected (perhaps even demanded), but his blind sidekick, Rufus, and cousin both occupy huge roles and a lot of space here. Although they are very different, both serve, at times, as accomplices, friends, and saviors, even offering great doses of comedic relief in an otherwise very dark narrative. Furthermore, there are a lot of characters here, but Early keeps them all moving and defined in ways that—even though the bad guys are clearly bad guys—make them easy to dislike while still understanding what makes them unique.
The second thing that merits attention in this novel is the way the author uses uncertainty to keep readers at the edge of their seat. This is a mystery rooted in the real world, but it regularly brushes up against the supernatural, almost like a mystery that impersonates a horror novel very well. At the center of this is Old Nathaniel, a legendary, racist boogeyman also known as the Hide-Behind Man. Except, now Old Nathaniel seems to be doing things that are too real to be denied or ignored. Between him, Earl’s dreams, and a somewhat eerie atmosphere injected with shady dealings, heavy religious undertones, and even snuff films, In the Valley of the Devil is a superb hybrid that brings together the best of what mystery and horror have to offer:
There had been a rustling in the plants, and now I heard a high-pitched whispering. I stepped toward the field for a better look, but there was no one there, only the massive stalks moving in a slight breeze, the corn silk floating out from the dark green husks, the widespread tassels waving against the blue sky like paper claws. And then in a flash, like the flicker of lightning, I saw someone step across one of the rows and disappear.
Lastly, there is something that makes this a very relevant, timely novel—the way it deals with small-town racism. Although Earl’s father is dead, the town hasn’t changed much, and now there’s a new man in town spewing hate and reinforcing racists views. For Earl and Rufus, who is a black man, this is a huge problem, and the angst it causes is an underlying theme in the novel.
When I’d come up in these mountains over thirty years ago, the racism and misogyny had had as much to do with ignorance and poor education as it had with pure hatred. Sure, it was still vile, and men like my father who perpetuated it and capitalized on it were beyond reprehensible. Yet, what seemed to be happening now with Jeb Walsh—and all the people who put these yellow Skull Keep stickers on their vehicles—felt meaner, more despicable somehow, as if it were an extension—or maybe a better words was symptom—of the corrosion of goodwill and basic decency that seemed to be pervading so many parts of the country.
Readers would benefit from reading the first novel in the series, Heaven’s Crooked Finger, but In the Valley of the Devil also stands alone as a great, tense read. Hank Early understands what makes a mystery grip its readers from the first page, and he hits every mark while simultaneously imbuing the story with enough skulls, fear, knife attacks, and creepy figures moving through a mazelike cornfield to make it a recommended read for fans of horror fiction. Earl Marcus is not done yet, but this is an outstanding entry in what has so far been a top-notch series.