From my perspective, this was a near perfect mystery. I absolutely love books with a dual timeline, and find that I am typically most captivated by the historical timeline. This book was no exception.
McCrumb moves between the present, where main character, Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, is recuperating from being shot during the course of an eviction. McCrumb's Ballad series is set in Tennessee, and her command of the setting is terrific. The distinction between city/town folk and the mountain people is well-defined and compelling. This book was originally published in 1997, in those halcyon days before the opioid crisis overtook the small communities discussed in this book, but many of the same issues are still present.
Spencer Arrowood has been commanded to come and witness the execution of Fate Harkryder, who was convicted of murdering a young couple who was hiking along the Appalachian Trail when he was a brand new deputy. His doubts about the guilt of Fate were raised when his Sheriff told him that there were two capital murder cases in Tennessee history that bothered him: Fate Harkryder and Frankie Silver.
Frankie Silver is the young woman at the center of the historical mystery, and what a character she is. That timeline is based upon the real case of Frankie Silver (wikipedia page is here) executed in Burke County, North Carolina in 1831 for the axe murder of her young husband, Charlie Silver. McCrumb uses the voice of court clerk, Burgess Gaither to tell Frankie's story, although there are some small pieces of narration directly from her. Again, McCrumb uses the schism between the wealthy, educated and wellborn townsfolk and the impoverished, uneducated people of the mountain hollows to tell her story.
Spence Arrowood uses his recuperation time to try to unlock the mystery of what really happened with Frankie Silver - did she murder her husband in cold blood, or was there some other mitigating fact present? And, he simultaneously revisits the Fate Harkryder case, trying to assuage his sense that Fate is about to die for a crime he didn't commit.
This book does not have a happy ending, but I really loved it nonetheless. The way that the author wove in the folklore of the place really resonated with me, and Frankie's story was extraordinarily compelling.
I read Sharyn McCrumb's first book earlier this year, If I Ever Return, Pretty Peggy-O, and from my perspective, this one blew that one out of the water. I will definitely be tracking down more of McCrumb's Ballad series.
This was the perfect choice for the Southern Gothic square!