Book Review: The Houseboat by Dane Bahr
Dane Behr’s debut marks a notable new entry into the still nascent Midwestern Gothic genre, evoking a sense of place as unforgettable as the cat and mouse relationship between the detective and killer in this atmospheric novel of hard rain and small towns in mid 20th century America.
Oscar, Iowa in the 1960s is a quiet farming community on the banks of the Mississippi River, where dry summers cause hardship but wet ones inspire even greater fear:
Four days of hard rain and the river became a butcher. It would rip at the banks as it swelled and cleave the edges of cropland like a knife to brisket. The rain fell and the river would feed. There was nothing it wouldn’t take: trapping pigs and cows and gnawing on timber girders until the bridges collapsed on themselves. Days of that and no ease. Dawn would come but only because the world still turned. But the east would not pale like their prayers had asked for. A dawn rising like dusk, and no sun and no relent, and the children would not run to play in it like they first did, and as the day became dusk the sky would darken and night would fall quickly and still the rain came and the river butchering.
It’s in this atmosphere that a young woman is found naked by the roadside, claiming that her boyfriend has been killed while they were on an overnight camping trip. Everyone in town knows the young couple, Hannah Dahl and Billy Rose, and the townsfolk quickly close ranks to protect the traumatized girl.
The local police force finds plenty of blood at the campsite, but no sign of Billy. Suspicion quickly falls on local weirdo and petty criminal Rigby Sellers, but Sheriff Amos Fielding doesn’t have enough evidence for an arrest. Fearing that he’s out of his depth, he calls in several favors, resulting in Detective Edward Ness coming down from Minneapolis to assist in the investigation.
Fielding and Ness strike up a quick friendship, but Ness has demons lurking just below his affable surface demeanor. After losing his wife and child seven years ago, he’s taken to drinking, violence, and worse. He’s still got great instincts though, whether it’s while interviewing suspects or after being roused from a feverish sleep one night in his Oscar hotel room. He goes to get some fresh air from his window and tries to tamp down his paranoia that someone is watching him:
You’ve lost it, Ed, he said to himself.
He closed the window and the room was quiet. He went back to bed and closed his eyes and for a long while he did not fall asleep. But when he did he began to snore. No more dreams that night, just the black slate behind which the eyes roll in drunkenness, searching out what they will, seeing things that may or may not be there.
And down on the street, tucked away in the fold of an alley, appearing finally like some gothic fiend, Rigby gazed up at the window of Ness’s room and chomped his teeth together.
Rigby is a monster in human guise, a soul twisted by a past of abuse and neglect, who lives on the titular houseboat while surrounded by manikins that he lovingly dresses and talks to. He is a wholly repulsive figure, especially in his dealings with women. Even so, only the hardest of hearts would be incapable of at least a twinge of sympathy for someone who’s never been socialized to anything but the most degraded of company, and who is made a frequent scapegoat for the failings of society.
As the hard rain continues to fall and Fielding does his best to maintain order and civility in his increasingly restless town, Ness and Rigby dance around one another in a dizzying duet of blood and madness. The Houseboat dissects the character of each deeply damaged man, bringing the tension to a boiling point as the body count rises and the men risk everything to track each other down. It’s a stylish noir thriller perfect for fans of Midwestern crime and the desolate horror of the unexplained and frequently unsolved.