Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
What seems like a gang fight turns out to be anything but in Brian Freeman’s Spilled Blood. South western Minnesota sounds bleak enough, but imagine if you had two towns – one with work, one without – where all the kids went to the same high school, and then imagine that not all the kids have been making it to senior prom because leukaemia seems to have been taking too many.
You can guess what would happen if any of the girls should meet at the end of an evening of drinking and misery: one of them might not make it home. Lawyer Chris Hawk arrives at the sheriff’s office to find his daughter accused of murder, with the victim being the daughter of Florian Steele, the man whose biotechnology company has brought employment to the county. There’s going to be some social pressure. In fact, as Michael Altman, the county attorney, tells Hawk, his daughter might be safer in jail.
Quickly running through all the problems of a mid-west state – from meth labs to illegal immigration – Michael Altman explains that he does not need a murder added to his workload, especially one where the girl seen with the gun denies committing the murder. Chris Hawk does not reply that he has no need of the added pressure of returning to support his daughter and ex-wife only to discover that Mrs Hawk is another cancer victim. Neither man points out that the town does not need a thug such as Kirk Watson who is constantly up to no good along with his pitiful brother Lenny, but as author Freeman moves his authorial eye, we see him.
In fact, we see a lot more – clergymen, teachers, scientists afraid for their jobs, motel owners, more high school students and more lawyers. The only person we never see is Aquarius, author of anonymous letters threatening biotechnology boss Steele. Oh, and we never see Vernon Clay, Steele’s one-time scientific sidekick – not to speak of, while Spirit County must be a dark and spread-out place because for all his skills Freeman never manages to be there to identify the culprits when someone’s house is shot-up, or even when someone is shot dead.
When the solution comes you’ll see that it has all been fairly clued, but the underlying offence is really one of Hitchcock’s “mcguffins” as Brian Freeman elides over a legal case (where a judge has abandoned his role to let the expert witness take the role of arbitrator) and a town’s water supply (aquifer or dam). He also manages to switch from teenage angst opera, through melodrama to a revenge tragedy, though moving fast enough that you don’t notice the joins. Like a sausage gourmand, you will find that you enjoy the result if you avoid noticing how it was made. Spilled blood sausage anyone?