What the Dead Men Say, by Ed Gorman ISBN 0312878001
Five out of five stars
It all starts with a factory closing its’ doors and throwing many men out of work and leads through extreme grief, a powerful and consuming desire for revenge and finally a boy becoming a man. Although at the end, he does not like the one he has become.
The setting is far western Iowa in the last years of the nineteenth century. Clarice Ryan is a thirteen-year-old girl and she is taking a deposit from her father into a bank in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She is a regular known by all the employees and she is always given a mint as a reward for being such a regular and valued customer. However, this day is different. She walks in when a robbery is taking place. There is a brief gun battle between the police and the robbers and Clarice is shot and killed instantly. In an area of ridiculous irony, while the robbers got away, they didn’t take a single dollar. The robbers were all laid off from a buggy factory and were struggling to survive financially.
It is years later, and the three bank robbers had blended into society, two of them getting married. All three have tried to forget their past, but it is always with them. Septemus Ryan is Clarice’s father and he has brooded over her death and plotted his revenge. He sent a Pinkerton man to investigate and that man was able to determine the identities of the three robbers.
Septemus and his nephew James ride into the town where the three men live, setting off a chain of events that will lead to a confrontation between Septemus, the robbers and the local sheriff, an honest and just man. Septemus is by this time quite mad, although he genuinely cares for his nephew and wants him to become a man. James has been raised by his mother, a good woman that emphasizes activities more commonly associated with girls.
Even though it is clear what the end point will be every early in the book, the journey there is very well laid out. While there are some noble characteristics in nearly all of the characters, from the robbers to the insane Septemus to the teenage prostitute Liz, most are dominated by the bad things in their lives. This is a book without heroes, it is dominated by tragedy.