Spilled Blood, by Brian Freeman

Review published on April 5, 2012. Reviewed by Mike Stafford

Spilled Blood is the seventh book from Macavity Award winning psychological suspense author Brian Freeman.  The cover begs a disturbing question for any parent: “could your child really be a killer?”  However, Spilled Blood is not a psychological tract on the subject of murderous children.  Instead, it is a vital account of life in the rural American badlands, and of the corrosive and self-perpetuating nature of hatred.

The book follows lawyer Chris Hawk as he sets about finding the killer of Ashlynn Steele, daughter of local chemical magnate Florian Steele.  In a situation genuinely deserving of the over-used phrase ‘every parent’s nightmare,’ Hawk’s daughter Olivia stands accused of the crime, and on the strength of very convincing evidence.  As Hawk ploughs deeper into the events surrounding the tragedy, Freeman offers us a tale of inter-town hostilities, religion, loss, and blood feuds.

The feud between the towns of St. Croix and Barron provides the fuel for the narrative in the early stages of the book.  The youths of each town engage in petty exchanges of tribal violence, with a desire for revenge ensuring an unending string of attacks by each side on the other.  This is no mere tit-for-tat conflict though.  It comes against a backdrop of rural hopelessness and stagnation.  Employment opportunities are limited, ambition is stifled.  There is a sense that those craving success must flee the area, leaving only the social chaff, fighting for the remaining industrial scraps left in town.  This is a very American wasteland, reminiscent in its own way of John Steinbeck.

The picture is completed by the presence of rural religion.  The Christianity of Spilled Blood is not the ecstatic Baptism of the American south, but rather a grinding toil under the watchful but strangely indifferent eyes of the creator.  The locals are characterised as “solid, hard-working Christians with a lot of common sense,” and when tragedy strikes, “you prayed, you shrugged, and then you got to work.”  Characters struggle with identifying what God wants, viewing all around them as either in accordance with, or opposition to, divine will.  Great swathes of Freeman’s US readership will certainly see this as an empowering faith.  Others, no doubt, will see this as the downtrodden servility of a people to whom absolutely nothing comes easy.

In terms of plot, Spilled Blood has a hearty dose of the police procedural to it, albeit with a lawyer for a protagonist.  Hawk engages in endless wheedling out of the facts, from local teenagers, police officers, businessmen, lawyers and other key figures in the community.  While a police hero would have recourse to any number of other investigative devices, Hawk’s search for the truth involves a great deal of dialogue, and readers are advised to keep their wits about them in order to keep up.  Rather than a series of grand revelations, Hawk’s case builds in tiny increments as he digs up snippets of information.

Against the backdrop of the investigation comes an evocative family tale, as Hawk is forced to rediscover his relationship with his daughter.  He is a rather typical workaholic lawyer, having allowed his marriage to slip away from him as he “lost his priorities.” Now, despite regularly talking with his daughter on the phone, he has virtually no idea who she is behind the adolescent secrecy.  Hawk’s are a modern set of problems that, while they have been examined endlessly in every medium, rarely receive such compassionate treatment from crime writers, particularly male crime writers.

Overall then, Spilled Blood is a success.  It is a thoroughly convincing account of rural American living, tied into a plausible and satisfying mystery.

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