DISTURBING THE DARK by Wendy Hornsby

Palo Alto — McKinleyville:  Perseverance Press, 2016. $15.95

Wendy Hornsby has been many things over the course of her life--historian, professor, mother--but writer, by her own admission, she has been all her life. She does not remember a time when she has not written or thought of herself as a writer. In college, she chose history as a major. History is full of passion, adventure, romance, murder; it is the story of human beings in full. History is rigorous in its training, for it looks at continuity and change, and within those parameters, it then asks who, what, where, when, how, and, most important, why. Such training is good for writing, be it mystery or journalism, and it should surprise no one that Wendy Hornsby is an Edgar-winning writer (Best Short Story 1992, “Nine Sons”) and author of both the Kate Teague and Maggie MacGowen series. 

DISTURBING THE DARK is the tenth in the latter series. It is not necessary to read the earlier MacGowan novels. Everything a reader needs to enjoy this mystery lies between the covers. Not having read Maggie’s introduction to her newly discovered French family aids in a reader’s empathy--Maggie sometimes feels herself an off-balanced outsider. A reader forms an immediate connection to a highly likable and intelligent character.

Maggie MacGowen is a television videojournalist, a documentarian from California, who is documenting the agricultural seasons on her French family’s estate, a large, working farm in Normandy, France. The family has owned the land since the fourteenth century. Because of the arcane inheritance laws, Maggie’s grandmother Élodie Martin, is only the custodian of the estate. Only the direct heirs can alter or sell part or all of the estate--an issue for one of the Martins, working to develop a planned community for senior citizens that integrates their needs with traditional village life and agriculture. Additionally, the estate hosts a summer archaeological dig looking for evidence of pre-Roman Celts. The discovery of a skull threatens all of these projects and brings the past into the present by exposing the participation of the “grandmother Mafia” of the village, including Élodie, in the killing of sixteen Nazi occupiers during World War II. 

The consequences of killing and burying them on the farm extend right through to the present. The villagers do not casually speak of what was done, but they do not apologize for it or deny it. Once the discovery of the skull makes the Internet, various types of people descend upon the Martin estate. The merchants who traffic in Nazi memorabilia flock to the farm as does Erika von Streicher Karl, an elderly German woman from what had been East Germany during the Cold War. She seeks two things--knowledge of what happened to her adored Papa, Major Helmut von Streicher--and the treasure he left hidden for her and her brother. In the course of the madness by all who have descended on the farm, one of the archaeology students--one with a dubious local history and outsized ambition and impatience--is murdered and left amongst the carrots. Maggie becomes ‘Madame Sherlock Holmes’, as the local police investigator dubs her, and her almost fiancé assists her in finding the killer via his ‘old school ties’--tight and important in France.

Shakespeare may have believed the past is prologue, but not in this instance. Here, on the Martin estate, Maggie MacGowan finds that William Faulkner holds sway--“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  

The consequences of war and occupation are suffered unto the third and fourth generations. For Americans, World War II is history, if not nostalgia. Europeans are still processing the effects and repercussions of that war and its follower, the Cold War, which further divided and scarred Europe. There are some disquieting aspects to this processing. Nazi symbols are banned in Europe; the buying and selling of Nazi memorabilia is also illegal, but not on the Internet, and there are plenty of buyers.  Sadder are the Germans seeking lost family members--where they died and if the bodies can be returned. They wait for the Internet and social media to alert them to the discovery of bodies, which raise hopes of closure, which are usually crushed. The treatment of the German war dead underscores the differences between the losers and winners. Hornsby’s use of these elements, both tied by ultra-modern technology, give this novel a poignant resonance that distracts from a couple of real weaknesses.

Hornsby is so focused on telling the story from the past as it pertains to the present that she drops the ball on the ending. The resolution to the killing of Major von Streicher and the breaking and entering of the Martin’s farmhouse follows French and European Union law. It is accurate, but anti-climactic. One gets a sense of American frustration with technocratic law and emotional deflation from Maggie. That resolution is as it should be, but the murder of the archaeology student lacks a satisfying ending. An academic controversy, and the reasons for it, probably do not strike the reader as sufficient reason to commit murder—even when the French and American systems of higher education and academic funding are quite different. Furthermore, conflict between and amongst the members of the dig is not exposed and examined.

That said, DISTURBING THE DARK is a thoughtful, highly readable contemporary mystery that will leave the reader wanting to see more of Maggie MacGowen and, hopefully, France. I can cheerfully say I hope Maggie’s contract at the television station in California is not renewed.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
webmaster: kgw@KGWhitehurst.com