Life in a small town: Kate, the girl voted most popular in high school, marries Jake Barnett, the son of the “big name” sheriff. The years pass. They have a six-year-old son. Jake becomes sheriff, his father having left town after committing a crime. Still, life should be close to idyllic. Except Kate has become almost manic about helping people, and Jake is having nightmares. The past is about to catch up with them, the past being an 18-year-old boy named Philip.
Both Jake and Kate believe they killed him.
Unexpectedly, the past is midwifed by Taylor Hathcock, who with an accomplice robs a gas station, kills a teenager, and then robs a second gas station. He’s whisked away by teenager Lucy Seekins in her BMW. Lucy watched the mayhem from her father’s home perched on the hill above, and pulls up just in time to get Taylor away from the crime scene. Taylor didn’t ask to be saved; Lucy hadn’t intended to become an accessory after the fact. Large things turn on unintended decisions. Taylor has her drive to Happy Hollow, the misnamed primeval forest with its wood full of eyes, menace, and unspeakable things.
The past is indeed coming back. It will not be ignored.
Welcome to Mattingly. The devil is walking here.
Billy Coffey’s new novel The Devil Walks in Mattingly is a dark, enthralling tale, dark for the emotions and sins it plumbs and enthralling because Coffey is a born storyteller, and a master storyteller at that (just follow his blog, What I Learned Today, and you’ll see for yourself). At numerous points in the story I became convinced that that the characters had all passed beyond redemption, but Coffey kept me reading. I’m glad he did.
His earlier works of fiction, and especially When Mockingbirds Sing, hint at this, but in The Devil Walks in Mattingly Coffey makes open use of the “extra-normal.” The novel is not a tale of the supernatural, but certain elements certainly lean in that direction.
The characters are all recognizable -- flawed individuals struggling to understand life and trying to put the past behind them. The villain, Taylor Hathcock, becomes a kind of anti-hero, drawn with care and compassion. He may well be the most engaging character in the story, in fact. He’s certainly the most self-assured character, understanding both his strengths and weaknesses, that is, until Lucy turns life upside down.
This theme of redemptive love shapes the story, giving it both its power and plausibility. We see redemptive love working itself out across generations, across relationships, even across the living and the dead. Each character is affected, involved, and ultimately transformed. But not all transformations end well.
The Devil Walks in Mattingly is Coffey’s most ambitious, and most successful, story yet. Given the quality of his previous works, that’s saying quite a lot.
Related – my reviews of Billy Coffey’s books:
Photograph of a small town by Peter Griffin via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.