The Code of the Hills is the first of four (so far) crime novels by Nancy Allen featuring Elsie Arnold. It is set in the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, in Barton, the seat of McCown County, for which Elsie works as a prosecuting attorney. Both the town and the county are fictional, but Allen’s portrayal of southwestern Missouri is pitch perfect, from the patois (you’uns, not y’all) to the overworked foster care system, from the poverty and meth to backcountry Pentecostals. The Baldknobbers—a vigilante group from the postbellum era—get a nod, and there’s even a jibe or two thrown in at Springfield, the third largest city in Missouri and “The Queen City of the Ozarks.”
The crime at the heart of The Code of the Hills is incest, and the mystery is whether Elsie Arnold will be able to successfully prosecute Kris Taney for it. (Even the name Taney has Ozarks resonance, by the way, since Taney County is real and has its own lake, Lake Taneycomo—for Taney County, Missouri, of course.) The witness who called in the crime—Kris’s brother Al—has disappeared. The Taney women—mom Donita, daughters Charlene, Kristy, and Tiffany—aren’t cooperating. Mom has taken up with a new beau while Dad is in jail, which Kris’s defense attorney thinks points to a setup. A key piece of evidence gets incinerated. A group of misinformed “Apostolic” Pentecostals take up Kris’s defense on the grounds of “family values,” and make Elsie’s life miserable in the process. (The scene where their itinerant pastor sets them straight in a sermon was a hoot, at least to this member of the clergy.) And Elsie’s incompetent boss—Madeleine Thompson—has it out for her. If Elsie loses the case, she loses her job.
You’ll have to read The Code of the Hills to discover the outcome. (And to find out what “the code of the hills” is.) What I liked about the novel is that it tells a story that feels like the Ozarks. If you live here, you’ll know what I mean. As a former foster parent, I’ve seen the reality of abuse and neglect, the poverty of many families, and the overwhelmed resources of the state of Missouri up close. This novel has a ring of truth to it. That’s probably because Nancy Allen is a native Missourian, former prosecuting attorney, and law professor at Missouri State University in my home town of Springfield.
I enjoyed The Code of the Hills. It kept me turning pages, which is my number-one criteria for mystery novels. So, I look forward to reading the next three novels in the series. I’m sincerely hoping Elsie Arnold comes to Springfield in one of them…
Nancy Allen, The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery(New York: WitnessImpulse, 2014).
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