Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton

Henry Dampier can't believe his luck. Here he was, meandering along selling Bibles in the rural South, and he meets an honest-to-God FBI man. More astonishing, this FBI agent, Preston Clearwater, wants Henry to work with him, taking down a stolen car ring. All Henry has to do is drive the stolen cars from one point to the next, do everything Clearwater asks without question, and never tell anyone what he is doing. Henry can't believe his luck.

As the book progresses, Edgerton fills in Henry's prior life. His father was killed when Henry was a baby, and his mother left him and his sister with relatives. He grew up surrounded with family, Aunt Dorie, Uncle Jack, Uncle Samuel, his cousin Carson and sister Catherine. Family and religion shaped his life. As he moves around the South, Henry meets new people. Marleen is his first serious love, and the Finley sisters welcome him into their home.

But, all is not well. In his new life with Clearwater, Henry starts to realise all is not quite right. There are strange men who seem unlikely to work for the government, night trips that can't be mentioned, and soon the work progresses from taking cars to taking safes from houses. Along the way, Henry keeps his sweetness but starts to question and put hints together. The book builds to a revelation of murder and resolution.

Edgerton is a master at portraying Southern life. This book illustrates life in the South in the time period from the 1930's to the late 1950's, that last generation before television, electricity and cars became commonplace. Family and religion made up a large part of most people's lives. People lived close to the land, growing gardens, hunting and fishing. Moral codes were rigorous and enforcement was a community affair, where your neighbor was as likely to correct a child as the parents.

The other strength of the book is character development. If the reader is from the South, they immediately recognise the characters, as they grew up with people who were just like the ones Edgerton describes. The description of food, entertainment, religious beliefs and attitudes towards life are familiar, and the book feels like coming home and slipping on comfortable clothes. This book is recommended for those looking for reading entertainment and a fond look back to another time.

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