The Unwilling, by John Hart*****

This one was worth the wait! John Hart’s new historical mystery, The Unwilling, is simply magnificent. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the galleys; this book will be available to the public February 2, 2021. Those that love excellent fiction should get it and read it.

The French family is troubled. The father is a cop in their small hometown in North Carolina; the mother, Gabrielle, has some sort of emotional disability. Bipolar? Anxiety disorder? Who can say. All we know is that her nerves are shot, and she loses it quickly and easily. The couple have three sons; the first two are twins, but Robert, the golden one, is dead, killed in Vietnam. Jason went to ‘nam too, and rumors say that he killed 29 people there in his first year. He is rumored to be bad news and has already done a stretch in prison. That leaves the youngest, Gibson, known as Gibby. Both parents are possessive of him. As adolescence sets in, it begins to chafe, the way he is overprotected, and now that he’s a high school senior, he’d like a little more room.

And then Jason is released, and he comes home. He isn’t welcome at the family manse, so he stays elsewhere, but he wants to spend some time with Gibby before he blows town.

The title is a chewy one. Initially, I associate it with the daredevil stunt that some high school seniors—mostly boys—consider a rite of passage. It involves jumping into the quarry from a very high bluff; make the jump wrong, and you’ll be dead when you land. Gibby doesn’t jump. Jason does.

The basic framework of the story has to do with crimes Jason has done time for, and others that are committed while he’s in town. A girl he’s spent time with is viciously tortured and murdered, and many in the community make assumptions. But in reality—and we know this early on—he is being framed by a man known as “X” in prison. Truth be told, X is actually the weakest element of the story, and he’s mostly superfluous, but since this is supposed to be a thriller, the thread involving him adds suspense, particularly at the end. The climax is something else again.

But the most interesting aspect of the narrative has to do with the family, and by extension, one could say, all families. Over the course of time, a family’s story is told, and eventually labels develop. The small town setting in a pre-internet era makes this especially true, since most people’s interactions are limited to those that live in the same vicinity. And so, Robert French is the tragic hero, cut down in his prime while fighting for his country; Gibby is the baby of the family, a good kid, a good student; and then there’s Jason. Not long after the murder, Detective French speaks with the medical examiner about Tyra’s murder, and he asks the ME what would make someone do this; not just murder, but torture and mutilate. And the ME tells him that although it’s not the accepted clinical expression, “People like that are born wrong.”  And though French is reluctant to say such a thing about his own son, he wonders if he should accept this as true. His wife, mother of all three sons, tells him, “Gibby is all that matters.”

But as the story progresses, we see that there’s more to this story; a lot more. Jason has simply given up trying to defend himself. Refusing to do so is why he spent time in prison. When the world gives up on you, why try? To be sure, he’s no innocent, sad-eyed puppy. He’s seen things, and he’s done things. But people are complicated, and when we try to drop them into neatly labeled boxes, we shut ourselves off from learning details that don’t fit the picture we’ve painted.

For me, this story was less about solving a crime, and more about the characters. I was thrilled that the main story wasn’t about Robert. I’ve read too many novels lately that focus on the dead sibling, and it’s becoming trite. But Hart is a seasoned author, and he doesn’t drop into that well-worn channel. Instead, we see why various well-crafted, complex characters think and act as they do. Reading it, I find myself thinking about my sisters, and the small ways in which we developed labels as children and young adults; happily, none of us was labeled the bad seed, but if we’d been boys…? And I think also of my own children. For a brief, terrible time, I saw my eldest as that person, the one dragging his sister into trouble. Later, much later, I learned it was actually the opposite, but he figured it was better if one of them was still in good standing, and so he took blame that wasn’t entirely his. It’s not a great feeling, but at the same time, my own experience made this story more interesting, and I’m willing to bet there are a great many other readers that will read this book and think about their own families as well.

There are appealing side characters here, and the most compelling is Gibby’s best friend, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to make good.

So who is the unwilling one? Is it Gibby, for not jumping off the bluff? Is it Gabrielle, for not entertaining the possibility that her son, Jason, deserves more than she is willing to give him? Is it Detective French, for not being willing to completely give up on him? You can take this title in a lot of different directions.

Hart’s literary prowess shines here. It’s not always an easy read; during the more violent patches, I took it in small bites. I received both the print and audio galleys, and I moved back and forth between them, leaning more toward the audio, whose reader, Kevin Stillwell, does an outstanding job; but at times I forgot something, or wanted to check a detail or highlight a quote, and then I dove into my digital review copy. You can go either way without fear of disappointment.

Highly recommended.