Country Noir: The Sweet Goodbye by Ron Corbett

The mountains of North Carolina are my favorite country noir setting for the simple reason that they are home, and there is a rich tradition of country noir set in the Ozarks that we can probably credit to Daniel Woodrell, but it is always nice to get the chance to visit someplace new via fiction.  The Sweet Goodbye is set in the North Maine Woods in the vast, empty, northernmost reaches of the contiguous states.

I tend to work in places past their best-before dates—mill towns that no longer have a mill; fishing ports where the fish are remembered like mythical beasts; town sand cities where the workforce is unemployed, working recall hours, or gone.  People having their financial security threatened is what a lot of crime depends upon.  From what I’ve seen, it might even be the straw that stirs the drink.

Danny Barrett works undercover for the FBI.  He is on his current case for two reasons: he is very good at what he does, and he grew up around timber in northern Michigan.  The latter is vital to passing as a tree marker.  The investigation is focused on a local timber company that has way too much cash.  Not much money in timber anymore.  Not much money in anything legal in rural Maine anymore.  The investigation immediately goes bad when a cooperating banker is murdered.  It takes him into the orbit of the lush, co-owner of the timber company, Travis Lee, Lee’s girlfriend Pearl Lafontaine, and Pearl’s kin Beau, who is operating a smuggling and drug empire nestled up against the border with Canada.

I saw something that billed The Sweet Goodbye as something of a romance.  And it is, of a sort.  Romance is one literary tool seldom used in country noir.  The way the story gets set up early on reminded me a lot of The Tilted World.  But Corbett goes in a different direction with the story.  What he does isn’t unappreciated, but my basic gripe with the book is that the way things play out Barrett is mostly just an observer.  Watching a character lacking agency watch the story happen doesn’t tend to make for compelling storytelling.  (This is probably a more realistic than usual depiction of undercover work, but realism is only valuable to the extend it enhances the story.)

3.5 of 5 Stars.

Disclosure: I received an advance copy of The Sweet Goodbye from the publisher.

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