Set in upstate New York just after the Civil War, Jeffrey Lent’s latest book is a bit puzzling. To be blunt, it ends just when things are getting really interesting. It’s not that things haven’t been interesting from the beginning: By page three we’ve been witness to a double murder. The murderer’s name is Malcolm Hopeton, and he’s returned from the war only to find that half of his farm has been sold out from under him and his wife is canoodling with his hired man—the type who, in the old days, would have been called a cur. In his fury, Malcolm even injures his hired boy, Harlan Davis, who has witnessed the whole tawdry mess. As for Malcolm, he resigns himself to the gallows. But will he hang, after all?
In between the murder and the book’s non-ending, Harlan heals up and goes to work for young widower August Swartout; Harlan’s sister, Becca, is already keeping house for him. The book then turns its focus from a spectacular crime of passion to the quieter rhythms of the labor that goes into running a farm. Most of the people we meet follow a Quakerish/Shakerish religion that values honesty, humility, hard work and an overall, austere decency. Observing that hard work and decency is where the novel’s real pleasure lies.
Lent, whose 2000 debut novel In the Fall was a bestseller, is known for his breathtaking and detailed descriptions of the land and nature. His characters’ speech is so rich and lyrical that it reminds the reader of J.M. Synge’s western Irishmen. One lingers over dialogue discussing the qualities of mules, the castration of pigs, the harvesting of oats and the making of jam, bread and pickles. Most impressive is the smallest person’s determination to be and do good in the face of calamity. And though he may dread having to tell the whole truth about his boss’ late wife and her paramour, no one wants to do good more than Harlan Davis.
Maybe A Slant of Light doesn’t deliver the resolution one might want from a modern police procedural, but its other virtues more than make up for it.