Ron Rash may not have invented the “Appalachian Noir” genre, but he’s certainly perfected it over the past 15 years with modern classics like Serena and The World Made Straight. His new novel, Above the Waterfall, is another contemporary take on the Southern Gothic tradition, featuring a slow-burn mystery that’s light on plot but thick with atmosphere, lyrical prose and a visceral sense of place.
The story alternates between a sheriff and a park ranger in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, whose lives become entwined by a series of escalating incidents involving family inheritances, land disputes and meth labs. The sheriff, Les, a hard-edged widower who craves solitude, is only three weeks away from retiring when a routine house call sets him down a path toward some of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make. Meanwhile, the park ranger, Becky, tries to lose herself in nature to escape two devastating incidents from her past.
When someone poisons the local river on property owned by an affluent fishing resort, all the evidence points to a stubborn old homesteader named Gerald Blackwelder, the closest thing Becky has to a father. Les, whose feelings for Becky are clouded by his guilt over the death of his wife, is forced to either arrest Gerald or find out if more dangerous men are involved.
Above the Waterfall harks back to Rash’s first novel, One Foot in Eden, another small-town story told from multiple perspectives, but this time there is no immediate noirish hook. Instead, Rash has crafted the finest prose of his career, whether it’s the brusque, whittled down voice of the sheriff, or the park ranger’s lush poet-speak, which allows Rash to invent words like heatsoak, streamswift, and sunspill. Don’t expect a grim, hardboiled mystery with a high body count. Above the Waterfall is another quiet, haunting ode to the natural beauty of the mountains.