The Distant Dead

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This finishes up another mini-project: read all the 2021 Edgar Award "Best Novel" nominees. Overall, a pretty decent group.

This one is dark and gritty, but it starts out with an unexpected scene, set "long ago": a young Native American lad crawls into a remote cave and has an unfortunate accident. We'll see him again near the end…

In the present day, we're in one of the least glamorous places in Nevada: a stretch of desolation just off I-80 between Lovelock and Winnemucca. A horrific murder occurs; the victim is Adam Merkel, a grade-school math teacher bound and immolated in a remote acacia grove. The body is reported by young Sal Prentiss, who's pretty shaken up. But (as it turns out) he knows a lot more than he's telling.

The story jumps around a lot, both in time (before and after the teacher's death) and between characters. (Third-person limited omniscient, according to the Masterclass folks.) There's Sal: an imaginative and quiet kid living "off the grid" with his uncles after his mom died. There's Jake, a volunteer firefighter to whom Sal reports the body. And Nora, another teacher who is compelled to turn amateur detective in trying to figure out what happened.

As the novel develops, we get a lot of revealed dysfunctional details, many sordid. A lot of guilt and resentment, built up over years. Infidelity, jealousy, revenge, fantasy, anthropology. And (whoa) lots of substance abuse, some alcohol, but mostly OxyContin and heroin. (A lot of sad people in physical/psychological pain in this stretch of Nevada.) Especially stricken is Adam, the victim, who is shown to be a truly tragic figure; he can be lyrical in his explanations of math and science. And yet tormented by his past and inner demons.

And, oh yeah, a diligent effort to prove the Riemann hypothesis. Didn't see that coming either.