“The concrete and steel structure sucks the water into its mouth, makes it scream.”
Five years after debuting her novel, Cottonmouths, Kelly J. Ford follows up with even more gritty rural noir. Everyone assumes that the remains found in the river’s lock chamber are those of Jane Mooney’s stepfather, Warren, whom she confessed to killing. But back then no remains were found, so no charge was made. Now, Jane reluctantly returns to her hometown twenty-five years after leaving it far behind. “One step back onto Arkansas soil and she’d be back in this life.” Sucked back in, like the lock chamber that claimed nasty Warren. But as a not-from-these-parts police detective digs into the case, he begins to suspect that Jane is only guilty of protecting the real culprit, and a lot of dirty secrets. It turns out, there are way more secrets about the night of the murder than Jane knows. Her hellish homecoming is a parade of once-familiar, now-estranged friends, family, and love interests. The truth of what really happened unfolds gradually, clues revealed with a deft touch by the author, who promises not a happy ending, but an ending that nonetheless sucks us in.
While Cottonmouths was set in a fictional small town in Arkansas called Drear’s Bluff, Real Bad Things takes place in Maud Bottoms, which is … also a fictional small town in Arkansas. They say, write about what you know, and Kelly J. Ford does that indeed. She knows small-town Arkansas, and she writes it with all flags flying — the grit, the secrets, the mommy issues, the poverty, the abuse, the good-ol’-boys’ complicity, the small-mindedness, the resistance to change. She also knows what it’s like to grow up queer in the South. Just like in her first novel, Real Bad Things features a lesbian protagonist ensnared by the dramas — and traumas — of her youth, her toxic family, and a lost love. But between the two novels’ protagonists, I favor Jane Mooney. She is not only willing (if not exactly prepared) to confront her hellish past, but she does so with a wicked keen wit. This novel is Gothic suspense in all its darkness and grit, but there are flashes of humor: “For all she knew, he could have someone locked in his basement with a bucket and a bottle of lotion.” For all her past trauma and current confusion, Jane has a sense of humor, and it’s sharp as a bottle shard.
Once again, Kelly J. Ford delivers a compelling, slow-burn mystery that reaches impressive depths of character and setting.