The Devil’s Hearth by Philip DePoy

Fever (yes, that’s his name) has a university job in the folklore department (yes, they do exist), but, when the department closes, he heads back to his Georgia hometown. The son of a magician and a stripper (stick with it), he left town, intending never to return. But when he comes home to find a body on the porch of his cabin and a wall of silence from the locals, he is impelled to investigate the crime, along with his Shakespeare-quoting university colleague and an old school friend turned deputy.

Philip DePoy is, to date, the writer of six Fever Devlin stories, five Flap (yes, that’s his name too) Tucker novels and a stand-alone novel, The King James Conspiracy. This was recommended to me by John from the Pretty Sinister blog as a possibility for Georgia in my Mystery Tour of the USA. To quote John:

“The books featuring Fever Devlin by Philip DePoy are very different, too. He’s a folklorist who stumbles upon puzzling mysteries involving stolen artifacts, missing people, and sometimes murder, in the course of his unusual research into the storytelling of the Appalachian people in the hills surrounding the college town where he lives and workd. Really under-appreciated books. Very American books that could only be set in that state.”

So, is this another successful stop in my tour? Let’s see.

First of all, this is a very well-written book. There’s a depth to everything and the Georgia mountain town is brought wonderfully to life. There is an air of unreality to the town – the most popular church is a snake-handling church, for example, complete with ancient snake-handling artefact. The locals have organised sing-songs, complete with stringed accompaniment – although they’ve had to do without a mandolin section since Fever left. Now, I haven’t been to Georgia – yet – and my only exposure to the Deep South is through film and the inevitable stereotypes. This is clearly written by a native, or at least someone who has done their research, as it brings to life a different culture to what one expects without resorting to too many clichés – an angry sheriff and a group of young men (the Deveroes) running around shooting at things excepted.

Fever himself – well, he does like giving his folklore knowledge an airing at every possible opportunity, but he’s a good lead. He’s got secrets in his past, as is the norm these days, but they do play an important part in the story and clearly will be expanded on in later books. His university chum Andrews is a bit superfluous to be honest, but his role is to give Devlin someone to explain all the oddities of town life to, so he’s a necessary foil.

But we’re here to talk about the mystery. Is it any good?

Well, the motive and general goings-on are shrouded with the town folklore, but the killer and the motive became pretty obvious to me as the book goes on. There’s a crucial “But what could that mean?” moment about two-thirds of the way through which I thought was pretty obvious and made Fever – an academic in the field that it involves – seem a bit thick, but he did have a lot on his mind. It’s a pretty basic plot really, if you strip the decoration away, but the decoration is such an important part of the story that you wouldn’t want to do that.

However, I must mention one of my bugbears – and I know I’m using that phrase a lot recently.

I imagine a lot of my readers will have seen the film Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery and, in particular, the scene with the henchman, Will Ferrell, who will answer any question if he’s asked it three times. Some mystery novels are like that – the detective interviews the suspects, then he does it again, then again and finally they tell him things that could have saved him a lot of time if only they’d told him at the beginning. Sometimes it’s done well, sometimes it’s not… What you really don’t do is have the characters comment on it.

Well, we get that here, with Fever describing the locals as like a mountain, eighty per cent hidden, and he’s content to wait for the information. Never mind the killer that’s lurking around, just let them take their time… luckily the killer takes the first half of the book off killing as well, so it doesn’t matter in the long run. Still, that’s a minor gripe, but I’d have preferred a little more plot development in the first half of the book.

Oh, and BLURB ALERT! My book refers to an important event that takes place approximately 75% of the way through the book. Not a good idea.

So, overall, a fascinating, if a little slow-moving, well-written mystery. Still not sure I’d go as far as saying that I actively enjoyed it, but I appreciated it all the same. Maybe one day, I’ll go back to Georgia.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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3 Responses to The Devil’s Hearth by Philip DePoy

  1. John says:

    Oh well, I tried. I liked this one and moved onto read others in the series. Sometimes I enjoy books on such a personal level that I may be over enthusiastic in my recommendations. I love the Appalachian portions of the US and I am particularly fascinated with American folklore. DePoy is a lifelong resident of Georgia, BTW, where he is a professor in a drama department at a small private college. I think I liked the book for its local color and folklore background more than the mystery plot. It had a movie-of-the-week kind of ending if I recall – melodramatic action, a garrulous talking villain, etc. Very similar to the ending in Tony Hillerman’s A THIEF OF TIME, a book coincidentally about archeology and old pots. Though here it’s a bowl not a pot. I have to admit that one of the Fever Devlin books I never finished — THE MINISTER’s GHOST. Just not at all very good.

    • It was certainly an interesting read and I’d recommend that people try out the series – it’s certainly got depth that is lacking in a lot of crime fiction. For whatever reason, it didn’t quite click with me and with a list of other writers to try (and forty more states to go on the tour), I think it’ll be a while before I come back to DePoy.

      Yes, the ending is a bit… overly dramatic. For no desperately good reason, Fever heads to the top of the mountain to confront the villain who spends a lot of time expounding on what he/she’s done. But as you say, it’s not the plot that makes this book, it’s the local background. In some ways, this is the problem, as I found some of the background, e.g. the snake handlers, a bit unbelievable, even though I know that it’s probably true – if you see what I mean. I think I need to go to Georgia before revisiting the series.

      Thanks for the recommendation, though, and Hillerman is also on my list.

  2. Pingback: The Retroactive Puzzlies for January and February 2012 | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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