Published by Custom House on August 24, 2021
Genres: Adult, Crime & Mystery, Fiction, Mystery, Thrillers
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A BookPage Best Book of 2020 * A People Magazine Best Book of Summer * A Parade Best Book of Summer * A Crime Reads Most Anticipated Book of Summer
“[A] second stunning piece of redemptive fiction… An ideal recommendation for fans of Kate Atkinson and Jodi Picoult.” – Booklist, Starred Review
A body burns in the high desert hills. A boy walks into a fire station, pale with the shock of a grisly discovery. A middle school teacher worries when her colleague is late for work. By day’s end, when the body is identified as local math teacher Adam Merkel, a small Nevada town will be rocked to its core by a brutal and calculated murder.
Adam Merkel left a university professorship in Reno to teach middle school in Lovelock seven months before he died. A quiet, seemingly unremarkable man, he connected with just one of his students: Sal Prentiss, a lonely sixth grader who lives with his uncles on a desolate ranch in the hills. The two outcasts developed a tender, trusting friendship that brought each of them hope in the wake of tragedy. But it is Sal who finds Adam’s body, charred almost beyond recognition, half a mile from his uncles’ compound.
Nora Wheaton, the middle school’s social studies teacher, dreamed of a life far from Lovelock only to be dragged back on the eve of her college graduation to care for her disabled father, a man she loves but can’t forgive. She sensed in the new math teacher a kindred spirit--another soul bound to Lovelock by guilt and duty. After Adam’s death, she delves into his past for clues to who killed him and finds a dark history she understands all too well. But the truth about his murder may lie closer to home. For Sal Prentiss’s grief seems heavily shaded with fear, and Nora suspects he knows more than he’s telling about how his favorite teacher died. As she tries to earn the wary boy’s trust, she finds he holds not only the key to Adam’s murder, but an unexpected chance at the life she thought she’d lost.
Weaving together the last months of Adam’s life, Nora’s search for answers, and a young boy’s anguished moral reckoning, this unforgettable thriller brings a small American town to vivid life, filled with complex, flawed characters wrestling with the weight of the past, the promise of the future, and the bitter freedom that forgiveness can bring.
I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Writing a novel, especially a dark thriller, where your central character is a young, lonely, neglected boy is risky. Authors take a chance on alienating readers who either can not relate or who maybe do not wish to become involved in such a dark prospect. In Heather Young’s hands though, this is not the case as her second novel, The Distant Dead proves.
A new maths teacher, Adam Merkel, is found by a young boy, Sal, with whom he had grown quite close. ‘Merkel the Turtle (as he was called by his students) has been brutally bound and set alight, left to scream in agony. When Sal alerts volunteer fireman Jake it sets in motion a chain of events that threaten to wreck the lives of many. Local teacher Nora, self-appointed friend of Merkel, makes it her mission to uncover the truth behind his murder while trying to protect the young boy at the centre of the mystery. As she unravels the information she is forced to re-evaluate her strained relationship with her father, a man she can not forgive for a terrible accident years earlier.
Young gives the three central characters (Sal, Nora and Jake) their own chapters through The Distant Dead and this really helps with getting under the skin of each one. All are set in the present day apart from Sal, who gives us an insight into the murder victim as well as his own demons. These demons mainly come in the form of his uncles Ezra and Gideon Prentiss who he has been placed to live with since the death of his mother Grace. Jake has always held a torch for Grace, but it never came to fruition, adding an extra element to the plot. Ezra and Gideon are truly hideous men, each manipulating Sal for their own ends. Young creates a feeling of ambiguity around the Prentiss brothers that makes you not only second-guess your own thoughts about their actions but also makes you read on to confirm or deny them.
Jake, is your usual small-town good guy. His unrequited love for Grace leads to an overwhelming feeling of responsibility for Sal. Unfortunately, apart from one instance, I never really felt he risked anything to aid Sal or the solving of the case. His chapters felt like extensions of Nora’s at times, and personally, this hampered the narrative for me. Nora is a deeply unlikeable character that I found almost impossible to care about. Resentful and incapable of empathy, she is so caught up in her hatred of her father that she often fails to see the blindingly obvious. I’m not sure if Young intended her to be an unattractive character, but she does create a fitting dichotomy with Sal. Overwhelmed at times with empathy, Sal sees in people what others cannot, often leading him to irreversible decisions. Truly believable and heart-breaking, Sal is the star of this mystery without a doubt.
Secondary characters are well imagined (I don’t wish to go into too much detail due to spoilers) but outside of the focal three, the Prentiss brothers were most deserving of their own voice and chapters.
Writing, Pacing and Atmosphere
Young creates tension perfectly throughout The Distant Dead. This is really where the novel shines. Stand-offs are executed perfectly, and various characters moments of loneliness, terror, rage and even violence never feel superfluous. Unfortunately, there are moments where the narrative veers off into factual territory – often in the middle of conversations or scenes setting- and this felt jarring. While the factual nuggets were interesting, they pulled me out of the narrative and towards the end of the novel I did find myself skipping them to progress the plot.
Small-town America can tend to be a cliche in thrillers and mysteries, but Young avoids that here. Yes, there are run-down bars, trailers, and residents who’ve never stepped foot outside the boundaries, but these are never dwelt on or over-emphasised. The rivalry between Marzen and Lovelock feels realistic and you can easily imagine the residents of each town putting their loyalty to the home before morality.
There are moments of pure dread throughout the novel, and few of them are easy reading. Scenes and discussion of drug abuse, illness and violence are prevalent through The Distant Dead and Young writes them realistically and with great emotion and depth. These moments never feel voyeuristic or unnecessary, rather adding urgency to the plot. The first half of the novel is more satisfying than the remainder, and I’m not 100% sure I’m happy with the conclusion, but, and this is the sign of engaging, thoughtful writing, I will reread it in the future to reassess my initial thoughts.
The Distant Dead is a haunting and tense thriller mystery depicting the shattered lives of small-town America and its issues with addiction. Not an easy read, it will leave you rooting for its young protagonist as he faces the injustices thrown at him.
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