When I say “country noir” in my blog subtitle, I am first and foremost talking about stories of my people—rural hillbillies from southern Appalachia. But I am not just talking about that. I can, have, and will read country noir set in the Ozarks, in the Texas Piney Woods, in the Rust Belt. I have always contended those stories, and books telling versions of them, existed outside the U.S. as well. I just haven’t known where to look. I have also long contended that you can set a country noir in the city. With Rob Parker’s Far from the Tree, I found a damn fine example of both.
The small town of Warrington, smack dab between Liverpool and Manchester in northern England, is roiled when a trench containing 27 bodies is discovered in a local forest. Lead investigator Brenden Foley’s world is further rocked when he makes the first identification—his nephew.
Serial killer stories aren’t my style and mesh poorly with country noir. You hear 27 bodies in a trench, you think serial killer. But the investigation quickly uncovers a couple of clues suggesting it wasn’t a serial killer but something a little more . . . organized. Serial killers aren’t the only people apt to leave a bunch of bodies in a hole, after all.
The United Kingdom has a rust belt of its own, with much the same problems and pathologies of the U.S. version. It isn’t foreground here, but it adds a great sense of place from the background. The Warrington constabulary is underfunded and hidden away in old baths. When it comes to crime, Warrington is mostly an afterthought to Liverpool and Manchester, occasionally a sticking point. It’s far from the glitz of London, Paris, and Milan, but they have social media there too. It helps that Warrington is a real place. I had never heard of it until I started the book, but Parker certainly makes it feel real.
Place, people, and voice are the holy trifecta of good country noir storytelling. Parker is skilled at little details that add a reality to the first two. He rotates among POVs in a fashion driven more by plot than by character, but with a ready eye toward opportunities to drop in small details so even single-POV characters can leave an outsized impression. The Foley clan is well represented, with Brenden casting a suspicious eye toward his semi-estranged, small-time crook brother and father (family, as always, is immensely important to country noir storytelling), but Detective Sergeant Iona Madison is the dark horse star. Beautiful and well bred, Madison balances a highly successful amateur boxing career, her love life (such as it is), her loyalty to Brenden, and being a really damn good cop.
I have some quibbles. Some with the book overall; some with it as a country noir. The gangsters are too smart, too competent, too untouchable. I had a small problem with a twist at the end. An end that, by the way, doesn’t really put a cap on things. Less in a “life is messy way” than in a “there is more story to tell” way. If it is intended to setup the sequel, I am there with bells on. But it weakens it as a standalone.
Narrator: It is hard to exaggerate how perfect Warren Brown is to narrate this story. It is set in Warrington; Brown grew up there. Boxing is a significant plot element; Brown won world championships in Muay Thai. Far from the Tree is a crime drama; Brown has appeared in TV crime dramas as an actor, most notably in Luther. Voice is so important for a country noir. That is literally true when they are in audiobook form. I am the world’s worst judge of non-U.S. English accents, but Brown’s northern English accent did much to immerse me in Parker’s world.
Far from the Tree is an Audible Original, but Parker wrote another crime yarn set between Liverpool and Manchester, Crook’s Hollow.
4 of 5 Stars.