If you’ve grown tired of formulaic mysteries and thrillers, then you’re in for a treat with the new book “A Stranger Here Below,” Charles Fergus’s 19th published book and the first in his new series of mysteries. The main character, Gideon Stoltz, is a man living on the outskirts—not just geographically in the small fictional town of Adamant, PA, but also emotionally. The town’s insular characters, including his wife’s family, often mock him for his German heritage, calling him “Dutchy.”
Stoltz is the young, newly placed Sheriff of Colerain County investigating the recent suicide of his friend, Judge Biddle. What initially seems like a clear-cut case leads Stoltz on a dangerous journey uncovering past secrets in his search for the truth and an explanation for his friend’s death. Fergus creates characters with rich, real lives that intertwine with the action of this well-developed mystery.
There’s also the added thrill of recognizing our Central PA landscape. Stoltz’s attachment to place is evident in Fergus’s beautiful writing: “He looked out at the broad valley in which the ironworks sat. Parts of the valley were bathed in sun, other portions were cloud-shadowed.… The clouds were serene and solid-appearing, like sheep grazing placidly across the sky…People are like clouds, he thought. They seem substantial and important and long-lasting. Yet they are here for the briefest day, then gone.”
I was delighted by Fergus’s ability to evoke landscapes with terse and poignant language, and fans of historical novels will also enjoy the research evident throughout the book. Iron making, shape-note hymn singing and the region itself all play a part in this unfolding mystery. An interesting note about the title: a shape-note singer himself, Fergus took the title of the book from a well-known shape-note hymn written in 1810: “I am a stranger here below, / And what I am is hard to know.” Each chapter of the book begins with a line from a sacred hymn, adding flavor to the setting and reflecting Stoltz’s own mental landscape.
In addition to the atmosphere, the unfolding mystery does not disappoint. Imagine trying to solve crimes with the crude tools an investigator had back in the early 1800s! Fergus creates the character of this compelling sheriff to show—not tell—us how it was done. Posting handbills in local haunts, discovering evocative journal entries and interviewing colorful characters, Stoltz follows leads from one end of the region to the next. Meanwhile, his wife, True, supports and challenges him as an equal partner in their marriage, which is refreshing in any work of fiction.
I read many mysteries and thrillers and I appreciate that the characters in this book are built not from clichés, but from Fergus’s deft descriptions of their thoughts, desires and secrets, all while creating a tone that keeps the reader entranced by the place. Like me, if you read “A Stranger Here Below,” I think you’ll be left wanting more. And you’re in luck, since it’s the first in a three part series. It's a pleasure to read such a skilled writer, and I believe readers beyond the traditional mystery/thriller genre can appreciate this novel.
Reviewer Elaine Meder-Wilgus is the owner of Webster’s Bookstore Café in downtown State College.
Charles Fergus will visit Webster’s for a book release celebration on April 14 at 2:30.