Wednesday, September 21, 2011


As soon as I see a new Sharyn McCrumb, I grab it up. I’m talking about The Ballad Novels, powerful stories based on events from America’s past.

As a college student, I sometimes drove home (four hours) on weekends. My most enduring memory of those drives is listening to the radio, hearing the Kingston Trio sing “The Ballad of Tom Dooley.”

I surely heard a lot of songs, but, after more than fifty years, the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” is the only song I remember from those drives.

Sharyn McCrumb’s The Ballad of Tom Dooley is a novel, not a “mystery” story. In her “Afterword,” McCrumb writes--

“I‘m sure that a great many superficial readers will see this work as a crime story and spout a lot of nonsense about ‘solving the case,’ as if it were an episode of CSI, but I wish they wouldn’t. It can hardly be a mystery when practically anybody in Wilkes Country will tell you on first acquaintance [who did it]. I agree. So there was no case to solve. My concerns lay elsewhere.”

McCrumb’s concerns lay with her narrator, whom she calls (in the “Afterword”) a sociopath, and with another character she calls a narcissist. Their interaction leads to murder.

McCrumb writes about life in North Carolina after the Civil War. The events and the memory of the Civil War shade everything in Pauline Foster’s world.

We tend to think that horror stories have vampires and the like, but the truth is, most often the real horror rests in human minds.

That’s the way it is here. To call the narrator Pauline Foster a sociopath is almost a kindness. She is among the most chilling characters I’ve ever known.  And her cousin Ann has a kind of narcissism which makes her immune to human feeling too.

There are redeeming characters in this book including Zebulon Vance, the former Confederate governor of North Carolina who helped defend Tom Dula (Tom Dooley is a corruption of the name). I admired James Melton, Ann’s husband, and another character, a freed slave.

But the heart of the story is Pauline Foster’s chilling manipulations to cause murder. 

McCrumb is clear that The Ballad of Tom Dooley is a fictionalized retelling of the tale based on her careful research. 

The story represents her reconstruction of motivations and states of mind that she can’t prove. Others have seen different motivations. But the bulk of the details (if not the motivations attributed to them) are factual.

My reading of this book led me to know the people behind a song, parts of which I still remember.

So I highly recommend The Ballad of Tom Dooley. In fact, I recommend all of McCrumb’s Ballad Novels. They bring something different to my reading, as I think they will to yours.

I ordered this book from Mystery Guild.


Cathy said...

Those two women made my blood run cold. Some readers may try to find excuses for them and say, "The war made them that way." It's not so. Even Pauline said that's the way she was born.

A Ballad novel is something not to be missed.

Joe Barone said...

I don't think the war made them that way. I think it is the unique setting in which these two psychopathic women lived.

Anonymous said...

I found "She Walks These Hills" in a thrift store years ago. The story and the way she told it was amazing and wonderful to me. I've read all the Ballad books, but got stopped by the idea of racing car stories. Have you read them? I'm ready to give them a try. I appreciate your thoughts on "The Ballad of Tom Dooley."
Have fun reading Louise Penny!

Joe Barone said...

I tried one of Sharyn McCrumb's racing stories and found it wasn't my cup of tea. But Oh, do I love the Ballad Novels!

I am enjoying Louise Penny. I always have so far.