Blurb: The dying years of the great depression; John Bischoffberger is a Pennsylvanian doctor adrift in Naples, Maine, struggling with his loss of religious faith and retreating from painful memories of The Great War.
As Medical Examiner John must document deaths that occur under unusual or suspicious circumstances. Yet as he goes about his work, he begins to suspect that the deaths he is called upon to deal with are in fact far from routine.
He becomes convinced that three itinerants are going about the county, killing. An old woman, a little girl, and a thin man are fulfilling some strange and unspoken duty, brutally murdering men, women and children; and the deaths seem to be drawing closer to John: others who may suspect foul play, then acquaintances of his, then perhaps friends, even family members.
As the storm clouds of a new world war gather in Europe, and John’s rationality slowly unravels, he must find a way to disprove what he has reluctantly come to believe, or to confirm his worst fears and take steps to end the killing spree of the three in the woods, whatever the cost.
This novel reads like a fever dream set in 1930’s America. Hot, dusty and oppressively atmospheric, the authenticity of the setting serves to highlight the surreality of the content.
The main character is Dr John Bischoffberger who, slowly unravelling from WWI PTSD and the strain of his work and family life, takes up literal and metaphorical arms in a fight against death itself. Other notable characters include ornery old man Joseph Allen with his introductory interjections of homespun wisdom and learned philosophy, and the three unnamed vagrants who appear to be an old woman, a thin man and a little girl, but are clearly much more… maybe everything.
The book is packed with symbolism, patterns and mirroring. John takes up using homeopathy alongside conventional medicine and carefully explains the distillation process with the importance of three drops and he is riddled with religious doubt, yet falls quite easily into belief in the power of the trinity in the woods. Much is made of the respective physical weaknesses of the three, mirroring the dilution of the homeopathic solution, and yet they are able to directly act upon stronger characters to great effect: a placebo effect, hallucination, or a mirror to the frailty of humanity despite our perceived strength? After all, it only takes a lungful of ephemeral smoke or a tiny pellet of lead, a few inches of water or a few inches of sharp steel…
I have never read a book that made me feel quite so small, frail and mortal. The author explores the big issues here: the fine line between strong belief and obsession; our ability to make a change in the small time we have in the world; the purpose of life and the inevitability of death. As for answers, they are left to the mind of the individual character or reader. The ending leaves a sense of futility in the human struggle, but also a feeling of purpose, that we need to find a path through the woods to our own ending, whatever it may be.
There is also exploration on the theme of personal accountability. If a tree falls on someone is that an accidental death? What if someone had taken an axe to the tree previously, with or without intent? Ah, but what if the person who planted the tree seed in the first place chose the spot with murder in mind? These are fascinating moral questions that really induce the reader to ponder their own beliefs and values.
I need to warn that the book is peppered liberally with bad language, violence, graphic death (including suicide) and some disturbing sexual scenes. None of these instances are gratuitous and they all contribute to the plot and character development, specifically the characterisation of ‘the Three’. However, this is not a quick, easy read, and certainly not for more delicate readers.
I would definitely recommend the book to book groups, as it is packed with discussion points, and to readers who like a vivid, gritty read which asks the questions but doesn’t spoon feed the answers.
It can be overstated then, certainly, but hardly ignored or denied. Let me say it again, almost anyplace is built on blood; Cumberland County, Maine, you can be sure is no different.
– Mason Ball, The Thirty Five Timely and Untimely Deaths of Cumberland County
The Thirty Five Timely And Untimely Deaths Of Cumberland County is available to purchase on Amazon right now.
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