Dying grass moon is the second Hennessey Reed mystery after One for another. Back in Melancholy, Idaho Territory, in the late 19th century, Hennessey and Marshall Rafael Cooper are estranged but still very much connected. Their community is still trying to heal from the atrocities of Hennessey and Raff’s last adventure, and are holding a fair to lift spirits. Then Raff discovers a fresh crime has been committed, and this one turns out not to be a one-off horror.
As well as the return of Hennessey, madam of the Fleur de Lis, and Raff, Dying grass moon brings back many of the crew from One for another: Hennessey’s friend Lizzie, who has turned to the bible in response to almost losing Evie, the girl she took in as a baby. Retired Doc Tolliger, Shakey and Fatfoot still have reserved seats at the Fleur-de-lis bar. The trio are still served by Nathan, who is now soon-to-be-wed to Annie from the bordello. Deputy Daniel Hawthorne is still bumbling around. And of course Raven the wolfhound is never far from Hennessey’s side.
With the fair in town, newcomers are not unusual, for example crystal ball-gazer Madam Beaulieux, “you’ll never see her without gloves and a scarf or shawl”, and her husband Ezekiel Beaulieux who “waddles like a duck.” A lawyer, Hiram Walsh, turns up to give Hennessey some good news, and then a Pinkerton agent, Kip McFarley, arrives. There are connections where there shouldn’t be, and as Raff comments: “things were about to get complicated.”
The plot revolves around a religious group called The Church of Celestial Light and Paradise Divine, and there are linked crimes dating backwards and looming forward. There are lots of clues through the tale, and plenty of action: ambush, a sniper, booby traps, and explosions. There is interest for the reader in working out the mystery, but it is the characters who carry the novel. And the writing, which is evocative: “Raff descried a difference between near silence that excluded humans yet incorporated birdsong and the sounds of nature, and out and out, unnatural silence.”
The setting is a character: the American West, the frontier of the acceptable and a refuge both for those outside the law and those outside social mores. And it is a frontier that is constantly moving, with Melancholy becoming more established and more establishment. Behind all the changes are the memories of the indigenous people who were displaced and abandoned. Hennessey has demons in her past, and she stands as a contrast to the perpetrators of the crimes: when thirsting for vengeance you can either turn your anger inwards and damage yourself, or you can turn outwards and hurt others. The moral of the story is that we are all damaged in some way.
Hennessey is “a woman ruinously dependent on the false-hope promises of laudanum and Irish whiskey”. She sees the spirits of the dead, which makes enclosed spaces and forests difficult. In the latter “the dead of a small country resided in their spiritual form in trees and undergrowth adjoining the trails.” Raff is of Indian heritage and has his own traumatic backstory. But where Hennessey senses “Pockets of terror were embedded in the essence of the landscape”, Raff hears wolves howling and knows “They spoke to each other, communicating to family much as humans did, though their family unit was loyal and loving the way many human families were not”.
What Hennessey and Raff do share is a moral compass, a love of animals, and although stubbornly ignoring it, a love for each other. This romantic tension is another aspect of the book that keeps the reader engaged. And the smattering of little-used words is entertaining: hornswoggled, absonant, caparisoned. Even the characters comment on Hennessey’s idiosyncratic speech: “When anxious or out of her depth her language got more flowery, more confusing than usual, and Raff often found it prickly to keep hold of what she was saying even when fighting fit.”
I really like flawed, insecure, but staunch Hennessey Reed. I like her worrying that she has brought danger to those she loves, like Raff, or that she has inadvertently abandoned an innocent, Mouse, a young boy who worked at the livery in Melancholy. Each chapter is prefaced by a piece of Indian wisdom, and you feel that it is the peace of such wisdom that Hennessey yearns for. Dying grass moon ends with the reader seeing more complications ahead for the oblivious Hennessey, so hopefully there will be another instalment of her story, “Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.”