When people think of gritty crime fiction, they probably most often envision an urban setting. With his latest standalone novel, CB McKenzie is here to remind us that small forgotten towns and the countryside surrounding them can supply all the grit required – and more – for a noirish adventure into the darkest corners of human nature. Welcome to Poe County, Arkansas. If you have read Daniel Woodrell, the terrain and its inhabitants will seem familiar. With McKenzie, that’s where you start, and then it’s as if Carl Hiaasen dropped in for a visit, tried for a while to lighten things up, and finally wound up fleeing in tearful confusion.
Our protagonist is Bob Reynolds, a self-described “dyspeptic poet with a little family money” who spends most days cultivating a steady state of drunkenness among locals who regard him mostly with indifference or hostility, or one of the attitudes on the spectrum between the two. Bob came to Poe County less than a year ago, hoping to leave his past behind him. Clues to Bob Reynolds’ past, and the general disorder of his psyche, emerge gradually through the storytelling, leading the listener to wonder just how reliable a narrator he might be.
Right off the bat, Bob Reynolds discovers a corpse floating in the Little Piney Creek in the early morning hours of a hot, dry August day. He really should have just left it alone and notified the authorities, and yet: “I pulled him ashore and started another series of events, which is all history is really, mine and everybody’s, just one damned thing after another.”
Soon our hero/anti-hero is getting a lightning lesson in how things really work in Poe County, and what’s going on just under the surface of the somnolent, secretive town of Doker, Arkansas. By the time he gets back to the creek with an officer of the law, the body that Bob Reynolds hauled up onto the bank has disappeared. To quote the well-know Buffalo Springfield lyric, “There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Thereby hangs the tale. As the story unfolds, so does the process of working out who knows what, who did what to whom and why, and just what Bob Reynolds’ real role is in all of this.
Bon Shaw’s deadpan reading suits the tone of the story, by turns somber, absurd, doom-laden, and dark with irony. Shaw has a slightly gravelly voice, pitched deep, which is just the right fit for Bob Reynolds and the story he tells. The various characters of Poe County, colorful and dangerous, are likewise well served by Shaw’s narration. Among these damaged souls, Bob Reynolds is more at home than he might care to admit. Listeners who like their crime tales built on a foundation of grit and ambiguous morality will find themselves absorbed by Burn What Will Burn.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.