Screenwriter, filmmaker and bar owner Eryk Pruitt is no stranger to crime fiction that depicts the dark side of the American South, and has a growing reputation in rural noir storytelling. Something Bad Wrong is his third crime novel and was partly inspired by the Valentine’s Day Murders in North Carolina, a real-life case that’s the subject of his eight-part true crime podcast The Long Dance. It’s also the first book in a new series featuring journalist Jess Keeler.
Like the author, Jess is a true crime podcaster and she has returned to Deeton County, NC, to move in with her mother after getting divorced. Jess has a background in journalism but is tired of reporting on trivial events. She wants to write something of substance – to make a contribution, for a change. Discovering an old spiral notebook belonging to her grandfather might lead to the story she needs to advance her career.
Jess’s grandfather was Sheriff’s Deputy ‘Big’ Jim Ballard, a revered detective until he was assigned to work on the case that would become known as the Lake Castor Christmas Eve Murders. Linda Harris and Steven Hicks vanished after attending a small gathering of friends and colleagues near Lake Castor, Virginia, on 24 December 1971. Two weeks later they were found tied to a tree across the state line in Deeton by a surveyor working for the county. Both were strangled to death and the ritualistic way their bodies were arranged hints at the work of a serial killer.
However, for nearly 50 years nobody has ever been convicted and it seems there has never even been a suspect. It remains a cold case until Jess discovers her grandfather’s notebook and starts to ask some uncomfortable questions. Unfortunately, some of those involved have already passed on. Others, like Jess’s own mother, aren’t willing to talk. Her mother believes that Big Jim’s involvement in the case ruined their family, but she refuses to explain why.
What prevented the Deeton or Lake Castor police from apprehending the murderer? Was it the bureaucracy of two teams investigating across state lines or was it the failure of one detective to do his job properly? When the couple went missing, Lake Castor detective Hank Dorritt and his partner Sergeant Jack Powers were on the case. After their bodies were discovered, Sheriff Red Carter’s Deeton team, which included Jim Ballard, became involved, complicating matters.
Red Carter was an old-school sheriff with a unique approach to law enforcement and a sexist attitude to boot. He claimed to run the entire county with just seven of North Carolina’s best men – one for each of the seven deadly sins, he says, giving rise to a Bible Belt vibe.
Like any true crime enthusiast, Jess finds the absence of information stokes her curiosity. She strategically enlists the assistance of well-known local reporter Dan Decker, a womaniser who is followed by scandal. Jess knows Dan’s celebrity status will help open doors and get people talking more easily. She also knows that Dan is desperate for attention, especially after being accused of sexual harassment and losing his job. What she doesn’t take into account is Dan’s inflated ego and his obnoxious treatment of the victims’ families. Dan couldn’t care less about people’s feelings. He sees his involvement in Jess’s podcast purely as a means to fame.
Making sense of her grandfather’s cryptic and repetitive notes is a difficult task for Jess. The notebook clearly states who he believed was the killer, but if Jim Ballard was so sure of the culprit’s identity why were they never convicted? The narrative is presented in two timelines: that of Jess’s grandfather covering the 1970s investigation, and that of Jess, who is now trying to determine what prevented the case from being solved. The motivation behind James Ballard’s notebook and the circumstances surrounding the case are gradually made clear through the use of this dual narrative.
Something Bad Wrong delves into the precarious nature of a murder investigation. It demonstrates how easily a murderer can go unpunished when the unpredictable human element is introduced and objectivity is lost. Corruption, egos, family secrets and shame simmer in a heady crime stew.
This is a substantial read that occasionally strays and meanders a little bit, which stretches out the story. Nonetheless, Pruitt incorporates some surprises and shocking events and grabs back the attention. Fans of Eli Cranor and SA Cosby will appreciate Eryk Pruitt’s writing style and characterisation of the southern landscape and a small group of its people. We’re looking forward to the next book in the series.
Thomas & Mecer
CFL Rating: 4 Stars