Book review

A Creek Named Sorrow. Judith Kelly Quaempts (2016)

*A Creek Named Sorrow* is a competently narrated crime/mystery novel that juxtaposes the beauty of a rural New England landscape with human crime and misery. But a dizzying cast of mostly undeveloped characters, and a striking lack of sympathy for/insight into its criminal crharacters, make this novel a less-than-satisfying read.

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A Creek Named Sorrow sets a story of crime, depravity, and suffering against the wooded, flower-hung background of Sorrow Creek in rural New England. Sorrow engages with the world of child pornography: the novel includes one family involved in the business, and one consumer, all living in the same village. It’s the murder of an elderly resident that frames the novel: the discovery of her corpse triggers events, and it is in the course of solving her murder that the town sheriff stumbles upon the child-porn hub in his jurisdiction. Sorrow is a competently narrated novel that juxtaposes the beauty of this landscape with human crime and misery.

Joe Wright finds his neighbour Lillian smothered to death in her cabin down the road. Lillian’s daughter Donna and grandson Kevin are alerted. Kevin’s behaviour seems off. Absent from the funeral are Douglas and Alice Frazier, who’ve refugeed here from unnamed events in Arizona. Douglas keeps a close watch on his family, forbidding them most social functions. Sheriff Dave Linfield and his deputy Hank Slovak investigate Lillian’s murder.

Also in the story are a myriad other characters: Joe’s demented wife Lureen; his neighbour Carol and her husband; Maggie who’s just moving to the village and Jackson who’s helping her move in; and numerous other villagers who are involved in the action either peripherally and briefly, or not at all. The novel is structured as bite-sized chapters, often just two pages long; each chapter rotates to a different cast of characters. The reader has no chance to get to know one cluster of characters before another is introduced. Soon, the growing list of dramatis personae becomes dizzying and confusing. Looking back on the novel, many characters could have been eliminated or combined without damaging the narrative’s structural integrity.

The author clearly loves this landscape. Every few pages we are treated to descriptions:

“On the east side, a single length of fence separated the yard from a meadow. A yellow rambling rose bloomed on the fence, bees flitting from one blossom to another.

“[Maggie] walked around to the back where a morning glory vine, with flowers blue as the roof, wrapped around a clothesline. A field ran from the clothesline to the foot of soft hills covered in pine. She spotted a few alders among them, their yellow leaves glowing like candle flame against the blue-green branches of pine.

“She returned to the front door, slid the key into the lock, and twisted the knob. Time to see what the inside held.”

Sorrow’s first few pages amply establish the novel’s contrast between tranquil nature and turbulent human life. After that, these descriptions of the landscape and of porch gardens are intrusive, and do no further the narrative. Given that this is a mystery-and-crime novel, this room would have been better devoted to complicating the crimes and their solutions – or to fleshing out the interiority of the criminals and other characters.

Sorrow throws so many characters into the mix that the novel has scant time to flesh out any of them. Perhaps the best developed is Alice. Her husband Douglas uses their own children in the family’s child pornography business. In prudently distributed, small drips, we learn how Alice met Douglas, and why she tolerates this exploitation of her children. Her own history compellingly illustrates the motives for her current behaviour – serving as a sympathetic case-study in the tolerance victims of abuse often show towards their abusers.

This sympathy and insight, however, are not extended to the Douglas – or to Kevin, the child-porn-consumer. Both men are portrayed as uniformly bad: Douglas a slick charmer to strangers, a misogynist and violent sociopathic tyrant inside it; and Kevin a sullen, foulmouthed lech, a glib liar and a parasite with no family feeling. In contrast to many other characters, we learn nothing about either of these individuals’ past. That is a considerable shortcoming in a novel engaging with crime. Early in the novel, the Police Department receive a briefing on the extent of the child-porn problem. They learn that new websites spring up faster than the police can shut them down. In that context, surely both the criminals producing child porn, and the criminals consuming it, warrant psychological analysis.

But the novel offers nothing like that. Both criminals are left painted all black, and meet violent ends; and the reader is left holding the moral, ‘Child porn is bad and criminal, and all criminals meet their due end, and then life is all nice and beautiful again.’ I’m no regular reader of crime/mystery novels; I’m not familiar with the typical scope of their psychological / sociological analysis. Nonetheless, Sorrow’s treatment of its criminal figures leaves me dissatisfied. It is human beings who commit crime. If we are to prevent crime, we must understand the criminals as human beings: human beings responding to abnormal personality and abnormal circumstances with unacceptable behaviour. Simply dismissing criminals as black-box monsters is not only unhelpful: it is counterproductive.

Am I asking too much of fiction to insist that every character – especially characters whose actions are problematic – be studied critically and with sympathy – as human beings? I don’t know. But I am asking it.

This relegating of Sorrow’s criminals beyond the pale of human sympathy is all the more surprising because another character, who has murdered her abusive partner, is treated with sympathy and dignity. Apparently, if you murder someone who ‘deserved it,’ then you still remain a human being entitled to understanding and sympathy.

Notwithstanding my objections, Sorrow is a pleasant, easy, quick read. Crime/mystery lovers will enjoy this well-paced book full of goodwill and lovely landscapes.

Read A Creek Named Sorrow here. Read in soft copy to save paper.

Switching to soft-copy books has made my note-taking easier and more extensive, my reading therefore more mindful and critical. Read better, save paper, save room on your overflowing and dusty bookshelves, and (in most cases) save money too. Win-win! Try switching to soft copy today. (Yes. This is propaganda. From someone experiencing every day multiple ill-effects of climate change, deforestation, air pollution, and water pollution. Please have a thought for the earth.)


By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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