A book group discussion of Disturbing the Dead by Sandra Parshall (with an Agatha Christie digression)

July 19, 2011 at 6:16 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

  It’s disturbing, all right. The bones of two deceased persons are found on a Virginia mountaintop. They both turn out to have been women, and both were murder victims. Their remains cry out for justice; it is Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger’s job to secure it for them.

This is just the beginning of a long and complicated story, whose tentacles reach way back into the past. I’ll admit right away that I had trouble keeping the various family relationships straight. Yet I very much liked this book, for several reasons. Tom Bridger and the other main characters are fully fleshed out and completely believable. I cared very much about their respective fates. This was  especially true of Rachel Goddard, a veterinarian who has recently relocated to the small mountain community in Mason County, where the novel’s action takes place.  She has left Northern Virginia in order to escape a harrowing experience and a troubled relationship. There is growing feeling between her and Tom Bridger, but she’s reluctant to acknowledge it or act on it. This is not a particularly original plot premise – I wrote about it recently in regard to Andrew Taylor’s Lydmouth novels. Still, I’m happy each time I encounter a nascent love affair in a novel. This is especially true if, as in both the Lydmouth novels and Disturbing the Dead, the author has made me care about the characters.

The country may be a new and strange place for Rachel, but it is home for Tom Bridger. Tom is part Melungeon, and this distinctive ethnic group figures prominently in the novel. (Parshall includes a note about the Melungeon at the front of the book; nevertheless, some in our group wished there had been more on this somewhat mysterious, only half-understood subject.) According to Wikipedia, “Melungeon”

…is a term traditionally applied to one of a number of “tri-racial isolate” groups of the Southeastern United States, mainly in the Cumberland Gap area of central Appalachia, which includes portions of East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and East Kentucky. Tri-racial describes populations thought to be of mixed European, sub-Saharan African, and Native American ancestry. Although there is no consensus on how many such groups exist, estimates range as high as 200.

Check out this Wikipedia entry for more information and some excellent external links.

Several in our group felt that they  also lacked crucial knowledge pertaining to Rachel Goddard. I felt that the information Parshall supplied concerning this character was sufficient, though it seemed to me that in the brief second chapter so much of her calamitous back story was revealed all at once that things were veering  dangerously toward melodrama.

I liked the way in which Louise kicked off our discussion. She asked each of us to state one aspect of the book that we liked, and one that we didn’t. Perhaps this was an especially effective device because only eight of us were present that evening. (Even so, by the time we got around to Carol, Person Number Seven, she lamented that the major points had been pretty well covered already!) If memory serves (and it doesn’t, always), everyone agreed that the writing in Disturbing the Dead was extremely good. Marge made the point that given the novel’s setting, in rural Virginia, the author did not expend as much effort as she might have in evoking a vivid sense of place. Several of us felt that the relationships among the characters were hard to keep straight, especially at the end, when everything comes together in a kind of crashing jumble.

There were a number of entertaining digressions  that occurred in the course of the discussion. Pauline, deeply immersed in several literature-related projects of her own, picked up on the subject of DNA testing currently being conducted among the Melungeon people by telling us about a recent book that has garnered tremendous praise from reviewers and has obviously made a deep impression on her: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

The subject of Agatha Christie came up, as it so often does, and I expressed my unhappiness concerning a recently televised version of The Pale Horse into which Miss Marple, played by Julia McKenzie, was inserted as the protagonist. The Pale Horse is a standalone; the protagonist is an historian named Mark Easterbrook. Let me first say that I haven’t seen the film in question. I’m something of a purist where Miss Marple is concerned: the only actress I desire to see in that role is Joan Hickson. Even so, I’m dismayed by this tinkering with the canon. The Pale Horse is one of Dame Agatha’s most singular achievements. In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran observes that there is, in this novel, “…a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.” I could not agree more.* (An even more egregious example of messing about with the canon occurred in the film version of Cards on the Table. In that case, not only were plot elements disarranged but the entire Zeitgeist was violated. In May, when we were in Torquay, I mentioned this severely altered version to John Curran. His immediate response: “That was a travesty!”)

Thus far there are three entries in the Rachel Goddard series, with a fourth due out in September. Frances spoke with her usual eloquence about the first in the series, The Heat of the Moon. She said that this was a very different kind of book than Disturbing the Dead and a uniquely compelling novel. She made me want to read it.

I’ve often heard folks say that one of the reasons they like being in a book group because the experience serves as an introduction to books they would otherwise not know about or not have thought to read. Alas, speaking for myself, I tend to resent the coercive element, not to mention the medical aspect – “Read this – It’s good for you!” But in this case, I have to express my pleasure in Sandra Parshall’s fine novel, as well as my inclination to read more of her work. Thanks for this fine selection, Louise, and thanks as always to the Usual Suspects for an enjoyable and stimulating evening.

Sandra Parshall

********************************

*Another film was made of The Pale Horse in 1997. It starred among others Colin Buchanan, an actor whose work I’ve very much enjoyed in the Dalziel & Pascoe series. I’ve tried viewing this version of the Christie novel twice and, finding it strangely incoherent, have never been able to watch it all the way through. I don’t think Colin Buchanan was ideally cast as Mark Easterbrook. On the other hand, Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings in the earlier Poirot films) reads the book on CD beautifully and would, IMHO, have made an excellent Mark Easterbrook.

2 Comments

  1. Kay said,

    Based on your review, I’ve reserved Disturbing the Dead. How nice to discover a new–to me at least–series that is well written. Those are pretty thin on the ground.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      As always, Kay, I am deeply glad that my opinion carries such weight. I do hope you enjoy Disturbing the Dead, & I’ll be interested to hear your reaction.

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