Pulse pounding suspense and lyrical affirmations of setting are not at all antithetic in William Hoffman's extraordinary 11th novel, Tidewater Blood. An explosive opening crackles into a mesmerizing tale of treachery and revenge, as a hunted man seeks to save himself by probing his haunted past. Set in the bountifully vernal Virginia countryside and the craggy cliffs of West Virginia's coal mining area, here is Southern exposure with a sharp Southern twist.
The patrician LeBlanc clan, proudly descended from gentrified Huguenot stock, gathers annually to celebrate themselves. On this, their 250th anniversary, they have again dressed in antebellum costume to share an opulent feast on the plantation mansion's portico - a meal never tasted as the porch suddenly explodes killing the eldest son and his family.
Immediately suspect is Charley LeBlanc, the family's miscreant son. A dishonorably discharged Vietnam veteran and former resident of Leavenworth, Charley has seceded from civilization, foraging for food near the makeshift he inhabits on a Chesapeake Bay inlet.
Brought in by the police who try to coerce a confession from him, Charley is reluctantly represented by a young court appointed attorney. When it becomes clear that he may pay for crimes he did not commit, one of the scruffiest, most emotionally scarred, yet deeply affecting heroes in contemporary fiction takes off to find the real killer.
During the ensuing odyssey, with the law nipping hungrily at his heels, Charley relies on his war taught skills: "I'd learned to nest keeping part of myself alert - an outer fringe of consciousness that sensed movement and alien sounds in darkness." His quest takes him to the mountainous West Virginia coal mining area, to a nearly abandoned town where his father oversaw a mining operation during World War II.
While Mr. Hoffman's narrative skills are abundant his character definition is superb. We meet an aged, independent backwoods woman, the memorable Aunt Jessie Arbuckle, who has a reason to help Charley. "Had seven children, all gone and spread to the four winds, " she tells him. "The last I heard from was Jacob, the youngest. Lives in Seattle and sent me a Christmas present, a GE toaster, and I got no electric. You chew?"
There is Blackie, the "he done me wrong" disfigured honky-tonk proprietress, another of life's secessionists. "I tell you one thing," she vows, "I don't use the word love no more." Add a grizzled mountain hermit who lives by stealing copper rigging, and a host of others, cinematic cameos all.
As Charley solves conundrum after conundrum to reveal the real killer, he also unearths some long buried secrets about the aristocratic LeBlancs and about himself.
Praiseworthy in every respect, this harrowing adventure captures readers with the opening page and holds them spellbound until the closing sentence. To call this tale a first-rate thriller isn't enough; to deem the author's prose splendid does not do it justice. Tidewater Blood is an exemplary achievement, one that may bring Mr. Hoffman the popular recognition he so patently deserves.
- Gail Cooke