One might describe Oregon as a mélange of Haight-Ashbury, Appalachia and Yankee nouveau riche. Valerie Geary’s first novel, Crooked River, follows this interplay between the state’s radicals, rednecks and arrivistes. It begins when a journalist with the WASP-y name of Taylor Bellweather drowns. And the prime suspect is a beekeeper with a beard and a penchant for whiskey.
The beekeeper is father to Sam and Ollie, girls mourning the recent death of their mother. Sam discovers the victim but fears that the police will implicate her father. The police implicate him anyway, because witnesses have him arguing with Taylor in a bar on the night of her disappearance. So Sam sets out like Nancy Drew to prove her father’s innocence.
Given the setting and the crime, Crooked River pays homage to Snow Falling on Cedars. But Geary is not one to labor over language. So while her novel is a swift and beguiling read, it sometimes resembles an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” Given that two youngsters are its narrators, it even flirts with the young adult genre. Not to say that Sam isn’t a compelling character. She is finely drawn, an update on Harper Lee’s Scout. When the local detective tells Sam that it’s not her job to protect her father, Sam makes a fair bid to join the great orphans of literature.
The problem with the back-to-nature ethos of the 1960s is that nature can be primal and nasty. The Summer of Love begat an Autumn of Discontent. Put another way, it’s all fun and games until a girl named Taylor gets whacked.
Geary isn’t explicit about it, but her novel undoes some of the more recent idealizations of that grand Pacific Northwest state. It may, as the current motto goes, “love dreamers,” but there’s a dark earthiness to it still. Or as Sam says, “trees made better friends than people did.”