Friday, March 22, 2013

Breakheart Hill

Several years ago I wrote an essay for a non-fiction book, Mystery Muses. The idea was to pick a book that inspired writers to write mysteries. While my main focus is on Westerns these days, I still love mysteries, and write them when I can. Most all of my Josiah Wolfe novels are mystery-based plots, and my new series featuring Lucas Fume will be mysteries, too, in one form or another.

Anyway, the book I chose was Breakheart Hill by Thomas H. Cook. This is, and always will be, one of my favorite books.

Here's the essay:

Breakheart Hill, Thomas H. Cook, Bantam, 1995

By Larry D. Sweazy

From the first sentence, to the last, of Thomas H. Cook’s novel, Breakheart Hill, I was confounded by what I was reading. Was it really a mystery novel? Could I categorize it in any of the sub-genres? It certainly wasn’t a police procedural or amateur sleuth novel, nor was it a cozy or a hardboiled novel. But it did have all of the elements of a mystery.

Detection lies at the heart of the novel with the unrelenting search for the truth always at the forefront. The suspense is tight and ever present with the plot and character revelations unfolding slowly, urging the reader to keep asking, What really happened to Kelli Troy on Breakheart Hill? There is a red herring, or multiple red herrings, depending on how one wants to look it at. And, there is a quantifiable, horrific crime—along with a trial and conviction of the main suspect.

When I began to seriously analyze the plot of Breakheart Hill, I found it simple, familiar, and expertly devised. It is a small town view of the early 1960s in the South, painfully experiencing desegregation mixed with adolescent love, unrequited love, reflected back on by a middle-aged doctor. The structure of the plot, shuffling from present to the past, and back again, in the easy, pained voice of the doctor, Ben Wade, is built with such ease that it was tempting to read this novel in one sitting. But a quick read would not allow the reader to savor the nuances of time, and form the larger view in their mind, that Cook has constructed.

Ben Wade was in love with Kelli Troy, a beautiful high school girl who moved to Choctaw with her mother from Baltimore. The love is not returned by Kelli in the way Ben hoped it would be. Kelli is more taken with Todd Jeffries, Romeo to her Juliet in the school play. Kelli is aghast at the prejudice she sees and experiences in Choctaw, and is verbally assaulted days before her tragic accident by Lyle Gates, who ultimately goes to prison for Kelli’s demise. After years of searching, of knowing there was more to Kelli’s fate than anyone ever knew, Ben Wade finally discovers the truth, and his own culpability in the crime. Justice is served in the end, not on a legal level, but on a moral level, as it is so many times in real life and in any good mystery.

So, I concluded, days after setting the book aside, that Breakheart Hill really is a mystery novel. One that celebrates all of the elements of the genre, while reaching beyond the confines of publishing standards with heart and good writing, making it nothing more than an excellent story that stays with the reader long after it has been put on the shelf.

As a writer, Breakheart Hill opened up a new path for me. The novel demanded that I look beyond the categories and focus solely on the interior and exterior lives of all of the characters. It demanded that I tell the truth, and demanded, finally, that to be a good writer, I must get to the heart of the matter without concern for anything else other than telling a good story.

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