Old Bones is the last of three detective novels featuring a sharp witted coroner Dr. Thaddeus Miller. In the short series of books Doc Miller is often assisted by Ben Wayne, a farmer, and Paul Burns, the local D.A. The setting is central New York (the reader can infer somewhere in Madison County fairly close to Utica since a train to that city is mentioned frequently) where pea farming seems to be one of the big agricultural industries. The opening scene take place on such a farm with a fight breaking out between a volatile supervisor and a crooked farmhand who is fired for cheating the farm in his bushel counts. Already we get the sense that hidden tempers will lead to sudden violence.
|The scarce UK edition (Gerald Swan, 1950)|
Some clever detective work, mostly on the part of Doc Miller, leads them to a bundle tied up and stashed in a dark area of the large mill. Miller studies the bones and notices that there is a large break in the skull leading him to believe that the person died a violent death. Furthermore, some of the ribs show a break and set that Miller recalls can only have been performed by himself on Nate Wight, one of the many members of a wealthy local farming family, who supposedly left town five years ago. When a thorough search of the mill following even more clever detective work uncovers a bundle of clothes and a watch that belonged to Nate, Miller is more than convinced they are faced with a murder and a cover-up. The story then becomes a twisting and involved, almost Southern Gothic, tale of family secrets and gruesome revenge.
Bill Pronzini has said in his 1001 Midnights review of Old Bones that the book "drips with atmosphere." It certainly does. Like A.B. Cunningham one of the preeminent writers of rural mysteries during the 40s and 50s Petersen has a real love for the Gothic. The grist mill is one of the creepiest murder scenes I've come across in my reading this year. The forbidding mill at one time had several windows, now all boarded up requiring the use of flashlights even in the daytime. There is a hidden entrance and a hole cut out for a cat to enter and leave at will. Surrounding the mill is a treacherous swamp in which several foot chases will lead to dangers and perils for the team of sleuths. Later in the book they come across an old tramp's camp site in a forest that reeks of the corpses of dead animals he has captured and slaughtered for food. Several of the carcasses are seen hanging from the trees making for a grisly and olfactory offensive visit. One of the female characters is often referred to as a witch and the appearance and disappearance of the appropriately black cat that visits the mill only adds to the superstitious belief that she is a supernatural being with transformative powers. How's that for dripping atmosphere?
The Mysteries of Herman Petersen
Murder in the Making (1940)
Murder R.F.D. (1942)
Old Bones (1943)
The D.A.'s Daughter (1943)