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THE HANGMAN'S KNOT

David Wiltse, Author
David Wiltse, Author . St. Martin's $24.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-312-28371-1
Mass Market Paperbound - 336 pages - 978-0-312-98936-1
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Wiltse's brooding 12th novel veers between thriller set pieces and oracular social commentary. At the start of his first adventure (Heartland, 2001), battered Secret Service agent Billy Tree exiled himself to his native Nebraska, where, as deputy sheriff, he dealt with more crime than he had bargained for. Now the solemn Tree is (vainly) hoping once more to live the simple life. Naturally, there's trouble aplenty in little Falls City, though of the smalltown variety: two-timing women, busted-up cars, a dead dog and, most iniquitous by far, a lynching, long-buried but whispered about in town folklore. Murky flashbacks provide a progressively more detailed picture of the awful crime from generations ago. In the present, someone anonymously leaves Billy a small hangman's noose, repeating the gesture more than once. This and the sudden arrival of strapping black Odette Collins (a long-forgotten high school sports rival) give Billy more than pause. Ostensibly a thriller, Wiltse's novel clearly aims at something deeper, with only partial success. The dour, stubborn Billy is not the most engaging or empathetic hero. Many scenes are followed by Billy's lengthy (and unintegrated) pondering of his feelings, motives and prejudices. Aesthetics aside, such self-absorption is not the same thing as depth nor does it serve to win over the reader. Similarly, Wiltse can't resist bald lecturing when persuasive storytelling would be more effective. He does better with mood and local color, incisively capturing the rhythms and details of rural life. (July)

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