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The Whiskey Baron
     

The Whiskey Baron

by Jon Sealy
 

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Late one night at the end of a scorching summer, a phone call rouses Sheriff Furman Chambers out of bed. Two men have been shot dead on Highway 9 in front of the Hillside Inn, a one-time boardinghouse that is now a front for Larthan Tull's liquor business. When Sheriff Chambers arrives to investigate, witnesses say a man named Mary Jane Hopewell walked into the

Overview

Late one night at the end of a scorching summer, a phone call rouses Sheriff Furman Chambers out of bed. Two men have been shot dead on Highway 9 in front of the Hillside Inn, a one-time boardinghouse that is now a front for Larthan Tull's liquor business. When Sheriff Chambers arrives to investigate, witnesses say a man named Mary Jane Hopewell walked into the tavern, dragged two of Tull's runners into the street, and laid them out with a shotgun. Sheriff Chambers' investigation leads him into the Bell village, where Mary Jane's family lives a quiet, hardscrabble life of working in the cotton mill. While the weary sheriff digs into the mystery and confronts the county's underground liquor operation, the whiskey baron himself is looking for vengeance. Mary Jane has gotten in the way of his business, and you don't do that to Larthan Tull and get away with it. With its unforgettable characters and evocative setting, The Whiskey Baron is a gripping drama about family ties and bad choices, about the folly of power and the limitations of the law.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
12/09/2013
This atmospheric, top-of-the-line debut novel, from South Carolina native Sealy, is set in his home state’s hill country in 1932. It gives a portrait of the region’s working-class inhabitants, reminiscent of Erskine Caldwell (Tobacco Road). Creaky, weary sheriff Furman Chambers investigates the brazen shotgun murders of two young men killed in front of the local tavern. The lead suspect is “Mary Jane” Hopewell, a hard-drinking but, until then, seemingly harmless ex–mill worker, while the victims are bootleg runners employed by Larthan Tull, Castle County’s arrogant “whiskey baron.” Larthan is a major supplier for Aunt Lou, a big-time booze vendor in Charlotte, N.C., and has attracted the attention of FBI agents Jeffreys and O’Connor, who decide to team up with Furman. The sheriff uncovers a scheme hatched by Mary Jane to get in on the local bootleg trade, even as the now-fugitive murder suspect makes a play against Larthan’s dominance. Meantime, Mary Jane’s nephew, Quinn, is courting Evelyn Tull, Larthan’s headstrong daughter, adding another combustible element to an already tense situation. Sealy’s impressive country noir, which follows in the tradition of such leading practitioners as Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock, serves notice of a promising new voice. (Apr.)
Library Journal
12/01/2013
Prohibition-era South Carolina is the setting of Sealy's debut, an assured work of literary suspense. In the mill town of Castle, work is beginning to dry up, but Larthan Tull keeps the alcohol in steady supply, running the bootleg whiskey trade with an iron fist. Nobody questions the arrangement—even weary Sheriff Furman Chambers, eager for a clean retirement, looks the other way—until two of Tull's men are killed in what appears to be a power grab by Mary Jane Hopewell, an outcast with designs of cutting into Tull's business. But the townsfolk—and Sheriff Chambers—aren't so sure: Mary Jane has always walked the line but never crossed over to violence. Tull seeks mortal revenge while Mary Jane goes on the lam but with one complication: her nephew has fallen in love with the whiskey baron's daughter. VERDICT "Violence is taking over everything," one character laments, and that feeling of a more simple and moral time being lost to the vagaries of man and industry pervades the whole novel. Though the book's climax is light on surprises, Sealy's finely drawn characters and evocative sense of place and time make this a memorable read, on par with the best of Daniel Woodrell and Ron Rash.—Michael Pucci, South Orange P.L., NJ
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-02-06
Sealy's stunning debut novel is a potent mashup of noir, Southern fiction and period novel, set in South Carolina during Prohibition. Outside a bar that serves as a front for the lucrative whiskey operation of town heavy Larthan Tull, two boys who work for him are shotgunned to death, and a man called Mary Jane barely escapes, pellets embedded in his shoulder. A young war veteran and sharecropper's son who got his name because his mother outfitted him in Mary Jane dresses when he was a child, the survivor is blamed for the killings. But Sheriff Furman Chambers is convinced Mary Jane is guilty of nothing more than chronic drunkenness. The sheriff has his work cut out for him in investigating Tull and his connections to the even more powerful Aunt Lou, who runs a regional bootlegging organization out of Charlotte. That's where Mary Jane heads, thinking he can cut his own deal with her. Meanwhile, Mary Jane's nephew Quinn and Tull's daughter Evelyn are involved in a star-crossed teenage romance, and the sheriff has to cope with federal agents who have their own agenda. Told in pitch-perfect prose, with a rich command of time and place, Sealy's novel builds slowly but powerfully to a violent climax with deepening themes pertaining to blood ties, religion, community and American enterprise: Even the most upstanding citizens sell corn to Tull to make ends meet. Though it could use a better title, this is a near-flawless effort by a writer to watch.
Book Riot - Emily Gaitlin
"A stellar debut novel .... Sealy brings smoldering suspense to the yard, and I was reminded of Tom Franklin, Ron Rash and Wiley Cash. Perfect for fans of Southern fiction."
Publisher's Weekly - Pubisher's Weekly
"(An) atmospheric and top-of-the-line debut novel ... Sealy’s impressive country noir, which follows in the tradition of such leading practitioners as Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock, serves notice of a promising new voice."

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781891885747
Publisher:
Hub City Writers Project
Publication date:
04/01/2014
Pages:
250
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chambers parked in some loose gravel a ways from the tavern and killed the engine. Ahead of him, a small crowd stood in the road, huddled like beggars, the fires of kerosene lanterns burning at their sides. The Hillside itself was down from the road, far enough where passersby would miss it. Dim lights in the windows cut through the dark enough to reveal loose boards dangling at odd angles from the building. Shingles half-cocked, planks of wood strewn about by the front door. Leaning against an old water oak, hunched in the gloom, was Larthan Tull himself, solemnly sipping from a jar.

As Chambers approached, the men in the road parted around the two bodies that lay at their feet. Boys really, their flesh chewed by shotgun pellets. The men had been murmuring among themselves, but as Tull rose from the water oak and swayed over, they quieted and lowered their eyes.

Chambers could see Tull was drunk, but not out of control. He figured a man with as many responsibilities as Tull had would have to stay in control, especially in a business where the casualty rate was higher than average.

Meet the Author

Jon Sealy's fiction has appeared in The Sun, The Normal School, and PANK, among other places. A native of upstate South Carolina, he currently lives in Richmond, Virginia. This is his first novel.

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