Cold Black Earth
Published: August 1, 2015
Published by: Thomas & Mercer
When Rachel Lindstrom fled from her rural hometown in western Illinois to join the State Department and see the world, she never expected to return with her life in tatters. But after the horrors of war and a painful divorce, the only place where she can rebuild is the town she once escaped.
At home, however, there is little comfort. Her brother, still reeling from his wife’s suicide, struggles to run the family farm and handle a hell-raising son. Rachel’s arrival also draws a pair of rival suitors: her brother’s handsome friend and a rough-hewn sheriff’s deputy who pined for her in high school. Romance is the last thing on Rachel’s mind, but a little comfort would be nice—except for the complications.
When a deranged killer escapes from a local prison, the far-flung farmsteads go on high alert—especially when the bodies start turning up. And in a county where the miles outnumber the people, it soon becomes clear that the madman is close behind Rachel.
Author Sam Reaves about “Cold Black Earth” and an exclusive excerpt.
Cold Black Earth is a bit of a departure for me; all my previous books (except for three I wrote under the name Dominic Martell) were fairly hard-boiled crime stories set in Chicago. So how did I come to write a book set in western Illinois farm country?
The truth is that I was returning to my roots. I went to high school in a little farming community in western Illinois. We weren’t a farm family; my father was a college professor. But we fell for a beautiful house out in the country twelve miles from the town where the college was located, and that’s where I spent my high school years. All my friends were farm kids, and I baled hay, walked bean rows and detasseled corn for summer jobs, just like everyone else.
I went off to college, my parents re-located, and I wound up in Chicago. But one of my brothers still lives out in farm country, and it was on a visit to him that I got the inspiration for Cold Black Earth, in the form of a single vivid image.
On a late fall evening I stepped outside my brother’s back door for a look at the extraordinary night sky (a wonder we city dwellers are deprived of). While standing there in the dark taking in the Milky Way and hearing distant dogs bark, I was struck with how far sound carries in cold air and how distinct individual sounds can be when not smothered by the urban rumble. And, having a crime writer’s mind, I could not help but jump right to the idea of hearing something sinister, close at hand but too far away to locate with any certainty. And that single image set off the train of thought that led to my writing Cold Black Earth.
The novel focuses on Rachel Lindstrom, who has returned to the farm where she grew up (now run by her brother) after resigning from the U.S. Foreign Service after a crisis in Iraq. With her career and marriage in ruins, Rachel comes home hoping to recover and rebuild. She steps outside one night to look at the stars...
After a time she rose and put on her coat and went outside and stood in the dark beneath a breathtaking sky, shielded from the barnyard light by the house, looking at the far-flung stars. I have no place in this world, she thought.
Beirut was just a fading dream, sunlit and turbulent, a pain in her heart. There weren’t going to be any children, spoiled or otherwise. Paris was simply remote, a stage for the brave, hungry girl she had been a long time ago. And Washington had never been anything more than the company town, and she was done with that company.
Which left this. Could I live here again? Rachel asked herself. People do. They make their lives here and raise families and are happy. I could come home again. I could teach school and have time to write those books and make my way back into this life I left and maybe eventually find somebody nice who would rescue me from being a spinster, growing old with her widowed brother in the house they grew up in.
Sound carries a long way in cold air, and Rachel stood listening to the faint scattered disturbances of the night. The clanking of distant hog feeders, a car burning rubber away from an intersection somewhere down the road, the rumble of a far-off train. Rachel frowned, fixing on an angry, grating sound just audible somewhere, she thought, to the southeast.
She identified it at last and turned to go back to the house, wondering who on earth was out at midnight using a chainsaw.
And off we go. Cold Black Earth is a mystery, a whodunnit, but it’s also about going away and coming home, about fleeing your roots and recovering them, about pain and loss and recovery. And it’s about the things that go on in the night out there in the dark countryside…
~Emmy’s Review ~
I found this book in an email that was sent to me with several choices for the Kindle First selections for the month. This title grabbed my attention immediately.
They say that home is the place that when you go there, they have to take you in. The high stakes government job Rachel held as a translator has burned her out, and her marriage has disintegrated. She returns home after many long years away, and finds that while things seem so different around her home town, it’s all really the same. Her mother and father have both passed on, as well as her sister-in-law. She moves in with her brother, Matt, at her parent’s old place, where he haunts the rooms like a ghost since his wife’s suicide.
It starts off slowly, and don’t take that as a complaint. The author eases us into the story, as we look through Rachel’s eyes at a town and a people that in her mind have several years of dust on them. She is continually surprised at what she finds, and saddened by the fact that yes, time passed here too. She’s not just coming to terms with life as she knew it ending, but also her own gradual aging. That’s enough to disorient and depress anybody.
She slowly starts integrating back into the community, reuniting with old friends and relatives. She is reintroduced to her nephew, Billy, who is now a teenager. He seems ok, if a little sullen, but hey, he’s a teenager in the middle of nowhere, so that’s no real surprise. I flat out adored Billy, just saying. Matt is about to wash his hands of him, because he’s hanging out with rough friends and such; Matt’s real problem is that Billy has no interest in the farm that Matt has literally made his life. It’s family land, and has been for generations. That brings up another theme: family, loyalty to family tradition. They may be the last generation to farm that land, and they feel the weight of all those past Lindstroms behind them. No one wants to be the one to sell the family farm, but for Matt it’s literally destroyed his life. Matt feels that Billy blames him for his mother’s suicide because she never wanted to move to the old homestead at all. Rachel starts to realize just how lonely and miserable her brother really is. Nevertheless, her brother tries to hook her up with one of his divorced friends, one of which she had a crush on years ago. She discovers that her high school prom date is now the local cop.
I enjoyed this author’s characters. I loved the layers that went into them. Matt was one example of this: he gave the outward appearance of the stoic farmer, but underneath we see the grief stricken husband, who, months after his wife’s death, still can’t bring himself to sleep in their old bedroom.
The mystery in this book starts slowly as well, and grows quietly in the background for the first quarter of the book. The first hints we hear are that a killer has escaped from the local prison, and is at large in the countryside. We get the sense that this guy is one sick puppy, but we don’t get treated to just how sick until later in the book. Rachel has the dubious honor of being the first person to find the first victim. It’s not pretty, and she’s affected greatly by the sight, and even more so by the realization that she heard the man being killed the night before (although she didn’t know it). Rachel is left with a growing sense of dread. She’s afraid to be alone, afraid to be in the dark, and everything is making her paranoid. At one point the author describes sitting in her truck outside of the house. She just knows that the killer is across the yard in the deepest shadows, and as soon as she turns her back she will feel the knife at her neck. It’s a creepy feeling. The suspected killer is, as I mentioned, off his rocker, and I would be worried too if someone was killed not far from by back door.
Before you know it, someone else has been killed, the countryside explodes with rumors of motives. The killer’s reign of terror has only begun to grip the landscape of this small farming community. Imagine it, if you can, a back country road that you have travelled a million times without a hint of fear, suddenly made sinister and dangerous. This author gives us a clinic on the anatomy of paranoia. I can definitely call this novel suspenseful, but it is a kind of suspense that creeps up on you, not one that jumps out from the dark.
I’m looking forward to searching out more of this author’s work.
About the Author:
Sam Reaves has written seven Chicago-based crime novels, including the Cooper MacLeish series, the Dooley series and the stand-alone Mean Town Blues. As Dominic Martell he has penned a European-based suspense trilogy. Reaves has traveled widely in Europe and the Middle East but has lived in the Chicago area most of his life. He has worked as a teacher and a translator.