Hank Early Double Review:
Heaven’s Crooked Finger & In the Valley of the Devil
One of the most rewarding things about reviewing so many books is the fact that I am continually being blown away by new discoveries. However, many of these ‘discoveries’ are tips from fellow reviewer friends who are often my top go-to guys for what to add to the TBR pile. The brilliant Hank Early is one of my most outstanding recent finds and I gratefully doff my cap to both Shane Keene from here at Ink Heist and Stevie Pattee at HorrorTalk.Com for pointing me in the direction these truly terrific mystery thrillers. Stevie told me “Hillbilly noir is a thing”, how right he was, and now I’m hooked.
The first novel in the Earl Marcus Mystery series Heaven’s Crooked Finger was published in 2017 and book two In the Valley of the Devil arrived in the summer of this year. The sequel is a separate stand-alone mystery, but there are heavy and frequent references to its predecessor, so I would absolutely insist you read book one first. When I was half-way through Heaven’s Crooked Finger I was already fully aware I was in the midst of something special, and so quickly retreated to Amazon and was overjoyed to find book two had just dropped. Perfect timing for me. I had the pleasure of reading both novels back to back, and as sequels go, In the Valley of the Devil was of the highest quality.
If you return to Ink Heist in the next few days we have a fantastic interview with the man himself, author Hank Early, when he recommends his favourite crime authors and tells us much more about the origins of his hero train-wreck Earl Marcus, and his childhood in Georgia, where both novels are set. These thrillers really deserve to sell well, and it’s terrific to see numerous leading lights of the genre giving the books great press. Paul Tremblay wrote “A twisty, page-turning, modern Southern Gothic that packs an emotional wallop…The real deal” and Brachen MacLeod added “Hank Early has not only written one of the very best novels I’ve read this year, but also introduced me to my favorite new mystery detective, Earl Marcus. This book is an expert mixture of action, suspense, and compelling characterization that easily establishes Early as a literary force of nature.” And you don’t argue with these guys.
Heaven’s Crooked Finger opens with private detective Earl Marcus receiving a time stamped photograph of his father in the mail, the problem is his old man is dead, a funeral he chose not to attend. Soon Earl returns to his childhood home, a rural and mountainous part of Georgia known as ‘The Fingers’ for the first time in over twenty years to visit a dying elderly lady who helped him when he clashed with his father two decades earlier. Along the way Earl is sucked into a mystery over whether his father is still truly alive.
Why does it matter whether the local hillbillies believe he is alive or dead? Earl’s father RJ was the charismatic leader of the fundamentalist ‘Church of the Holy Flame’, which regularly used snake handling as part of their services and his fire and brimstone church services dominated sections of the local community. RJ was a force of nature and many of his old congregation, now led by Earl’s elder brother Lester, believe he has returned from the dead. There are rumours of sightings from further up in the mountains. From then on out just enjoy the ride, because you’re not going to come across a more exhilarating twister all year.
One of the key factors that makes Earl Marcus such an engaging character is the fact that he is so completely damaged and even after not seeing his father for more than twenty years his shadow still towers over him. Like many detectives he has problems with booze, women and money, but none of this comes across as any kind of cliché and you’ll be rolling with the punches as Earl goes through the wringer encountering many demons from his past. But more importantly, across the two books Earl genuinely develops and grows as a character. The reason some fictional detectives have had such longevity, such as Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch, or Ian Rankin’s John Rebus is that they evolve, change and age, and Hank Early nails this entirely in two books. Sure, Earl is a mess, he’s broken, but he’s dealing with it. And he’s a true fighter. A survivor. A fantastic creation.
You could read these books as straight thrillers, lump them into the Southern Gothic pile or even use the Hillbilly Noir category label, in all honesty they are probably a bit of all three. They also stand tall against the best novels these genres have to offer. We’re going to ask Hank what he thinks about this himself in the upcoming interview. I’ve never been to Georgia, but after reading these books I feel like I have. The surrounding locations, bars, shacks, tattoo parlours, trailers, mountains and trails are so well described and drawn you will be completely sucked into this world. I can even taste Granny’s moonshine.
Earl coming to terms with his past is a major driving force of the first novel. But this impressively layered plot has a wide array of larger than life support characters which ensure Earl does not dominate proceedings. This makes it significantly richer and I was delighted to see many of these characters return in the second instalment. Even characters which have very small roles, such as nut-job blast-from-the past ‘Choir Boy’ are truly eye-catching. Local rough-neck hillbilly Ronnie Thrash and the blind guy Rufus who attended the same church as Earl when he was a teenager were amongst my favourites, both of which weave wonderfully in and out of Earl’s story and the overall plot. Moving into book two, it’s great to see these support characters develop also.
The reader is seamlessly pulled back in time with exceptionally convincing sequences and the teenage Earl repeatedly failing to meet the expectations of his preacher father RJ and by default God himself. Often when you read mystery novels and there are flashback passages which seem a bit superfluous to the plot the reader gets tempted to skip them, this is most certainly not the case with this novel. The sequences between Earl and his father RJ crackle and you’ll be sucked into his troubled homelife, religious rebellion and eventual expulsion. If anyone has an excuse to rebel, it’s Earl. And he does, big-time.
I do not want to say too much about the sequel In the Valley of the Devil except that is continues Earl’s story with a new mystery, which also has elements of horror thrown in. When you read our interview with Hank Early it’s evident that the author is a horror fan, the Earl Marcus novels are most certainly thrillers, but they both have a very undiagnosed whiff of the supernatural lurking in the background. This is very cleverly done and is a real highlight which threads through both novels, it tickles, but never dominates.
However, a new character Old Nathaniel has a major part in the second novel. Part boogie-man, part local legend, the locals believe this supernatural being (if he exists) is behind the disappearance of several local black people. The author has a lot of fun with this story, both on a potentially supernatural level, but also on a more serious one. This area of Georgia is mainly white and there is still a lot of racism, which is threaded into the novel via Earl’s black girlfriend, a policewoman from a local city who gets sucked into the mystery. At its heart In the Valley of the Devil is an outstanding thriller with a complex character driven plot. It also ends with a wonderful teaser at the end about what we might expect in the next book in the series.
At the moment the quality of crime, noir and dark thrillers is quite simply outstanding, from reliable household names to new kids on the literary block. Hank Early pushes himself to the top of the pile with these great books and if you’ve never tried Hillbilly Noir then Heaven’s Crooked Finger is an exceptionally fine place to start.
Be sure to tune in for our interview with Hank in the next few days. He might even tell us something about book three…