This is a good ol' Southern mystery that really isn't that much of a mystery, since we know who the culprits are (and aren't) nearly as soon as they are introduced. However, there are some twists and revelations along the way. What this story is really about, though, is not a whodunnit, but the two characters who are inextricably and unwillingly tied to events that happened in both the present day and nearly 30 years ago.
The first of our protagonists, Larry Ott, gets shot in chapter one. From there we go back in time to find out how poor Larry grew up as a poor white boy in Mississippi - not so much poor economically (though his family isn't exactly well to do, despite owning land) but poor socially. Larry is the perpetual outsider, the nerdy kid reading Stephen King horror novels while everyone else is playing sports, the boy who's a constant disappointment to his hard-drinking father, the boy who wants to be popular, or just to have some friends, but he's always on the outside, pressing his nose against the glass. His childhood is a catalog of disappointments and humiliations, culminating in a disastrous first date which turns into even more of a disaster when his date never comes home. From then on, "Scary Larry" is assumed to be an unconvicted rapist/murderer. No body was ever found and they were never able to arrest him, but that doesn't stop the entire town from assuming that someday, he will be. Because of his mother, who is in declining health, Larry can't leave, and so he spends the rest of his days in quiet purgatory for a crime he didn't commit.
In contrast to Larry, Silas "32" Jones grew up truly poor, a black boy from Chicago dragged to Mississippi by his mother at a young age. Although they barely have the clothes on their backs, Silas is a handsome, popular, athletic kid, and when he gets older, he enjoys the success and popularity that Larry can only dream of.
There is a secret between them - that for a little while, as children, they were friends. Now, years later, "Scary Larry" is still a pariah, Silas has returned to the town also, now as its constable, and another girl has disappeared. And then someone shoots Larry.
The unwinding of this story is a human drama that will make you feel terribly sorry for both Larry and Silas, two men who've been damned by their own guilt and inescapable pasts. The narrative is plain but evocative, putting you firmly in Mississippi today and in the early 80s... it's not the Mississippi of all those old movies or the pre-Civil Rights era, but it's still backwoods Mississippi, where White and Black can now kinda sorta be on friendly terms, but if you get too close, bad things can still happen. Where even though people pretend times have changed, an awful lot really hasn't. And nothing has ever changed for poor Larry.
This was a pretty impressive book. I teetered between 4 and 5 stars, so I'm copping out and giving it 4.5. Not quite rich or deep enough to carry 5 stars all the way to the end, but the writing and the characterization definitely makes it a worthy read, and one that would make me inclined to check out more work by this author. Highly recommended for anyone who likes a bit of crime drama with woeful, believable characters, and for fans of Southern fiction.