‘Real Bad Things’ taps into Ozark noir trend; ‘The Best Friend’ a story of betrayal – Sun Sentinel


‘Real Bad Things’ by Kelly J. Ford. Thomas & Mercer, 364 pages, $15.95

Southern noir has been making an impact on mystery fiction for several years, but dark fiction set in the Ozarks has been emerging more recently. Perhaps this trend could be from the influence of the TV series “Ozark” or the movie “Winter’s Bone,” based on Daniel Woodrell’s brilliant 2010 novel.

But more likely it’s because the region has largely been an untapped reservoir of good stories.

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Kelly J. Ford made her foray into Ozark noir in 2017 with her critically acclaimed stand-alone “Cottonmouth.” Ford returns to that Ozark milieu with the absorbing “Real Bad Things,” which follows a woman forced to return to her hometown to reconcile with her past.

Jane Mooney left her mother’s violence and her impoverished hometown of Maud Bottoms, Ark., about 25 years ago for Boston, where she relished that no one knew her past. But Boston hasn’t worked out. In the past few months, Jane has broken up with her girlfriend, lost her job and her apartment, and her savings have dwindled.

Now her abusive mother, Diane, demands she return home after human remains have been found in the Arkansas River. It’s assumed that’s what left of Warren Ingram, Jane’s brutal stepfather and Diane’s husband. Jane was 17 when she confessed to killing Warren but she was never charged because no body and no evidence was found. Besides, in the past decades, more than 23 men — “never any women” — have disappeared, presumed drowned in the river that “smells of cottonwoods” or just left their families and low-paying jobs. Jane is sure she has returned to be arrested for murder, but a new police detective’s investigation turns up myriad contradictions.

“Real Bad Things” works well as a look at the region, as a character study and an exploration of power. Jane and her half-brother, Jason, with whom she reconnects, were raised in violence, finding “comfort in shared sadness.” They became accustomed to their mother’s abuse as well as that from her string of boyfriends.

They also discovered just how little power they had. If the police did show up at their home to investigate abuse, nothing would happen; the police were more likely to take the side of the men rather than the children.

Jane learned to excel at “how to pack up her heart and move on.” Most people in Maud Bottoms and some in nearby Maud Proper knew Jane was gay but it was her poverty, her mother’s antics and drunken behavior that made her an outsider.

Ford’s assured writing finds the beauty in “Real Bad Things” — not in the violence but in the characters’ abilities to survive, reinvent themselves and map out a future for themselves, especially Jane. No matter how bad things become, Ford shows hope in “Real Bad Things.”

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‘The Best Friend’ by Jessica Fellowes. Minotaur, 320 pages, $26.99

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Jessica Fellowes has built a career with her involving historical Mitford Murders series and her five official companion books to the TV series “Downton Abbey,” created by her uncle, Julian Fellowes.

Fellowes takes a decidedly different approach with her unconventional standalone “The Best Friend,” which works equally as a historical and a contemporary novel. “The Best Friend” unfolds with snippets of conversations alternating with exposition to further set the plot that explores female friendship and betrayal. Set in England, “The Best Friend” covers more than 75 years, yet the story never seems tied to any one era and could easily have started this year, or decades earlier.

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Shy Bella, who lives with her grandmother, becomes instant friends with gregarious Kate, whose family appears to be prosperous. But when they are 17, Bella feels betrayed when Kate openly flirts with a boy she likes and then moves away with her family. Kate promises to write and keep in touch but never does. Bella never even knows where in England Kate’s family settled.

The two meet again when Bella sees a flier about a play in which Kate is starring. Despite a heartfelt reunion, the two lose touch again.

At 42, they meet again when Kate, her husband and son happen to move into Bella’s neighborhood. Kate’s career is drying up while Bella, married with a daughter, is a successful painter of highly sought-after portraits. Bella finds herself “caught in this friendship again,” overshadowed by Kate’s personality while also resentful over Kate’s betrayals and abandonment though the years.

“The Best Friend” takes an unusual route to illustrate a destructive friendship leading to fatal turns along the way. Fellowes’ use of revealing dialogue lends an eavesdropping vibe that delves into the girls’ personalities as they age and, finally, become women in their 80s.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at [email protected].



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