Author: James N. Ezell
Publisher: Authorhouse, 2017
Price: $18.99 (Paper)
James Ezell, of Tuscaloosa, has chosen in this debut novel not to write a coming-of-age story of his youth in Sumter County but instead a murder mystery.
“The Cistern” opens with a gangland killing. In a warehouse in Atlanta, a man known only as “Six-bits” is shot in the back of the head with a 22-caliber Derringer. The corpse is then slipped into a body bag, thrown into the back of a pickup truck, covered with some pieces of lawn furniture and driven into Alabama, then southwest to the fictional town of Whitby in what Ezell calls Tombigbee County.
(It’s not bad enough that places like Emelle are dumping grounds for toxic waste. In this novel, the same area becomes a dumping ground for corpses.)
The next day, the Randolphs, Dalton and Genn (short for Genevieve), are driving back to Tuscaloosa after a visit to their home town of Whitby when Dalton, an amateur photographer, pauses to take some pictures of the landscape and especially the sunset.
While developing the pictures he notices what appears to be a human face sort of sticking up from an otherwise empty field.
It haunts him. Is this an optical illusion, a patch of grass or stone that looks like a nose or chin? Why would a corpse be lying out in the pasture? Dalton, over Genn’s sensible objections, feels compelled to drive back the next day to investigate.
Well. You know that’s a bad idea.
Like the fictional detectives Nick and Nora Charles, Dalton and Genn really like each other and are pleasing to know. They were childhood sweethearts, and both have doctorates, Genn in nutrition and Dalton in civil engineering, specializing in ground water. Both are professors at UA—the doctors Randolph.
Their banter is not as clever as Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora, but, whose is? She is athletic, slim and, as mentioned, a nutritionist. He is wildly overweight, definitely not a “thin man.” When they eat out, she orders catfish blackened and he wants it fried, with fries.
The Randolphs live off Rice Valley Road, on the north side of the Black Warrior. There is no denying it; it is fun to read fiction set in your home place.
They return to Tombigbee County to see if the corpse was real and, no surprise, fall into a world of trouble.
As the title, itself a spoiler, suggests, out on the prairie of the Black Belt there are old cisterns. The chalk layer a few feet below the surface made wells impossible, and ground water often dried up. Big houses carved huge cisterns out of the chalk to catch roof water and, very soon, the Randolphs are forced down into one and they are not alone.
Ezell’s descriptions of their attempts to climb out are clever and suspenseful. Meanwhile, murders go on. A wealthy doctor in Vestavia murders his wife, and a number of other people go missing in a three-state area.
“The Cistern” becomes in part a police procedural, as various jurisdictions follow clues and search for the missing, and is also a commentary on class, as we meet some of the pretentious elite from Birmingham and some snaggle-toothed rednecks from Tombigbee County,
As a debut novel, “The Cistern” is perfectly respectable. The dialogue, often a problem for beginners, is quite good, there are some nice lessons on geology, ground water and Black Belt history, including a great steamboat accident, and the pace picks up as the plot unfolds.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.