Wild Thorn

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Overview

Charley LeBlanc left West Virginia under a dark cloud. An ex-soldier and ex-convict, the black sheep scion of a distinguished Southern family, his departure was cheered by a local law force glad to be rid of him. Now, when Charley returns to Shawnee County to see an elderly lady who'd befriended him while he was in trouble, he stumbles onto a murder, the prime suspect a wild woman named Esmeralda who lives in forests, caves, and abandoned houses. Charley shares a shocking connection with Esmeralda, and his ...

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Overview

Charley LeBlanc left West Virginia under a dark cloud. An ex-soldier and ex-convict, the black sheep scion of a distinguished Southern family, his departure was cheered by a local law force glad to be rid of him. Now, when Charley returns to Shawnee County to see an elderly lady who'd befriended him while he was in trouble, he stumbles onto a murder, the prime suspect a wild woman named Esmeralda who lives in forests, caves, and abandoned houses. Charley shares a shocking connection with Esmeralda, and his attempts to save her by digging up secrets about the crime make powerful enemies of those who are threatened by the truth.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Charley LeBlanc, the black sheep of a prominent family first introduced in Hoffman's Tidewater Blood, returns from Montana to his native Shawnee County in West Virginia for what he thinks will be a short visit. He is accompanied by his tough, sexy girlfriend, Blackie, whose hillbilly argot belies her extensive reading. When he calls on his old friend, the aging Aunt Jessie Arbuckle, he finds her isolated home crawling with police. She has been found dead under mysterious circumstances. A strange, wild-eyed woman named Esmeralda, about whose life Charley knows much more than he admits to the authorities, was spotted fleeing the scene. The police, who have captured Esmeralda and are holding her at a state mental facility with murder charges pending, are tight-lipped and unhelpful in the face of Charley's inquiries. Does Esmeralda have anything to do with a very rich family negotiating to buy Aunt Jessie's land in order to develop a resort? Charley has his hands full as he and Blackie try to protect the unfortunate Esmeralda while unraveling the murder mystery. Hoffman's strengths lie not so much in the mystery plot, which at times feels forced, but in creating a strong sense of place and well-defined characters. As usual, the veteran author of 12 novels and four short story collections writes dialogue crackling with understated humor, and his elegant, laconic style brings the panoply of Shawnee County personalities to life. (Dec. 6) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Vietnam veteran Charley LeBlanc resurfaces as the antihero in this latest novel by award winner Hoffman. First introduced in Tidewater Blood as the maverick son of a wealthy Virginia family, Charley fought unjust murder charges and lit out for Montana with his girlfriend, Blackie. This story begins with their decision to return to Shawnee County, VA. Upon their arrival, they learn of the recent and suspicious death of Aunt Jessie Arbuckle, an aged mountain woman who had always treated Charley with kindness. Toughened by hard living and imprisonment, Blackie and Charley have cause to view the law, the rich, and the powerful with jaded, mistrustful eyes. This entertaining murder mystery is replete with corrupt lawmen, betraying kin, dignified country folk, and the genteel residents of Wild Thorn manor. Further intrigue results over the true identity of two women: Esmerelda, who lives wild in the forest, and Jennie Bruce, the seductive mistress of Wild Thorn. Recommended for most public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 8/02.]-Sheila Riley, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, DC Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Hoffman’s latest excursion into the backwoods of Appalachia (Blood and Guile, 2000, etc.) continues the adventures of Charley LeBlanc, black sheep of a First Family of Virginia. Charley--Virginia gentry, Vietnam vet, jailbird, drifter--has bad luck with homecomings. The last time he returned to his family’s estate at Bellerive (Tidewater Blood, 1998), his father, mother, and brother were killed when the house blew up--and Charley nearly went to jail for it. This time, he leaves his adopted home state of Montana to visit girlfriend Blackie in Cliffside, West Virginia, where he and she find that Aunt Jessie Arbuckle, a mountain woman who raised chickens for most of her 87 years, is dead of mysterious causes. Not a soul on earth wanted Aunt Jessie dead, and she was as poor as a church mouse, so how did this happen? Charley starts digging and learns to his horror that the prime suspect is Esmeralda, a backwoods girl who grew up near the mines run by Charley’s family. Duncan St.George, scion of a rival mining family even richer than Charley’s, claims to have seen Esmeralda leaving Aunt Jessie’s house with a bundle in her hands the night before Jessie was found dead. Now Esmeralda, who has a long and mysterious family connection to Charley, is locked away in the state mental hospital in Huntington, and Charley is determined to prove her innocent. Together with tough-as-nails Blackie, he makes his way through the thickets of backwoods power--from the friendly, corrupt county courthouse to the palatial estate of the nefarious St. George family to the roadhouses and tumbledown shacks of the local good old boys who always know a thing or two--to track his prey with all the determination of apracticed coon hunter. A bit heavy on the backwoods caricatures, but a good read all the same: fast, and as fresh and unvarnished as a newly whittled stick.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061030956
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/25/2003
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 294
  • Product dimensions: 4.30 (w) x 6.66 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

William Hoffman is the author of twelve novels as well as four short-story collections. His writing has won numerous awards, including the Andrew Lytle Prize, the Goodheart Prize, the John Dos Passos Prize, and the Hillsdale Foundation Fiction Prize from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. His short stories have been featured in Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories 1996. The 0. Henry Awards. Tidewater Blood won the 1999 Hammett Award.

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Table of Contents

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First Chapter

Chapter One

I lay face up under a night sky not unbounded by space but starless, looming, and closing in as if to make its weight known to me. A random wind carried a restless message and disturbed the sage and swishing buffalo grass of the Great Plains. The wind stirred smoke from our campfire that had shrunk to embers and caused them to come alive with a convulsed red pulsing. The two hobbled horses moved like phantoms through the dark as they searched for graze. A shallow creek flowed over rocks rubbed so many centuries by the relentless water that they had lost all edges and become transformed to smooth configurations of rounds and oblongs. The pitiful, wavering cry of a lone coyote rose off a low bluff and seemed to give voice not just to its own loneliness and longings but also the world's.

The wind aroused scents of the plains and more -- the sea of grass, the soil's acrid thirst from lack of rain, and memory if memory could have an essence. The miles I, Charley LeBlanc, had traveled had provided no escape from broken images of loss that invaded and drifted through my mind. There was no fleeing anything, only rickety evasions created to deceive the self.

In shifting scenes played against the murky night, I pictured another time, another place -- not mountains like the craggy giants of western Montana or the glacial summits that held skullcaps of snow long into summer and beyond, but elevations forested and tamed that pushed up a measly three or four thousand feet, what the natives hereabouts would consider little more than buttes. The mountains of southern West Virginia weren't gnawed upon by erosion as in the Badlands or kin to thejagged peaks of the Rockies but would this time of year be uncurling moistly green and yielding reluctantly to spring. Beneath them ran not strata of copper, silver, and gold but of low-sulfur coal produced by millennia of the past when luxuriant swamp vegetation decayed and became compacted to petrifaction under the earth's overburden till finally transformed into black diamonds -- both the blessing and curse of what in part was a forlorn and desperate land.

I thought of this Montana's wind blowing across the plains, traveling and twisting its way to and among those puny mountains, maybe disturbing the red oaks, the shelly-bark hickories, the papaws, the sycamores, and ruffling their new leaves. The wind would find the gorge the Wilderness River had cut, a torrent of water raging not south or east, but north, up from Carolina to join the Bluestone, the Greenbrier, the Gauley to become the Kanawha, which in turn junctioned with the swollen mighty Ohio.

I pictured a trail that had almost disappeared under sodden leaf falls from mountain hardwoods of generations beyond count as well as recalled the pull against my pants' legs of hip-high growths of snagging hawthorn and stunted honey locusts. The river more than a thousand feet below broke against boulders as large as elephant herds that'd gathered to drink at their evening watering hole.

I augured up in my mind rusted, broken machinery lying among tangles of gleaming poison ivy and ashen wild grass that had somehow found root among crushed coal of a fallen tipple. Wheelless buggies lay overturned, crows flew squawking from crossbeams of wireless power poles, and kudzu had reclaimed beehive coke ovens and reshaped this once half-domesticated land to its own smooth draping. Beside the river the board-and-batten houses of the abandoned camp faced each other windowless across an unpaved company street. As the moist cold of the mountain's shadows filled the gorge, I found partial shelter and refuge in a water-rotted, half-collapsed Jenny Lind -- cabins named, my father had told me, after and in honor of the world's most famous opera star, called in her day the Swedish Nightingale. I cleaned out a fireplace and levered off strips of the house's siding to stomp for kindling. From the street I picked up coal where lumps lay scattered among thistles and jimson weed.

Stretched out on the spongy floorboards, I listened to the horned owl's dirgelike love song, a dog barking, a lynx's shriek, the death squeal of a rabbit, the crashing course of the Wilderness River, and the bugled tattoo of a railroad engine's horn, which sounded the plaint of lonely men everywhere. The muted clack of its wheels became lost in the river's din.

An alien sound wakened me -- the spaced crunching of boots upon cinders. With the opened blade of my Old Pal pocketknife clenched in my teeth, I crawled to the crumbling porch and peered out among the line of ghostly houses. A shape passed, no hungry grizzly or roaming cougar such as might have been on a hunt here in Montana, but a figure moving upright and not so much walking as seeming to glide as if detached from this earth. The shape vanished among dark gaps between houses, then reappeared like a pilgrim in a ceremonial procession -- a moon-silvered form flowing slowly through the night to become reabsorbed by its blackness.

The dog continued to bark, insects throbbed on the mountain's slope, and a whippoorwill sang abruptly and was answered by another more distant. Could any of those sounds have been the language of Esmeralda? If she yet walked the earth, she would not speak the tongue of women but that of creatures of the glens and forests. Did she roaming among the cliffs still hear the thrashing of the river or the ravens' cries from the mountain crests?

For two years I'd been gone, yet in Montana found no release from memories that I tried but could not evade because they would not die.

"What?" Blackie asked. She lay zipped inside her padded sleeping bag laid out alongside mine, her head resting on a rolled poncho athwart the dip of her western saddle. The coyote's cry had quieted. For a moment a sliver of moon tore at clouds before they dragged at and captured it back.

"Guess I'm going," I said.

"What?" she asked again, rousing and rubbing at her eye.

"Back to Shawnee County."

"And you're the one who swore to hell he never would."

Wild Thorn. Copyright © by William Hoffman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2004

    A Mystery That Feels Real

    I just love William Hoffman's work. He writes mysteries that feel real. The plot isn't some intricate conspiracy that has to be unraveled. It's a loose connection of facts that have to be worked and reworked for the protagonist to make progress. One small shred of evidence leads to the next until he builds a case. People lie to him and he sometimes gets distracted, pretty much like the real world. Hoffman has brought back Charley LeBlanc, the flawed but fascinating main character from his Hammett Award winning Tidewater Blood. Charley is a former Viet Nam vet and convict. He definitely has flaws but to me that's what makes him fascinating. I think the best mysteries are the ones where the detective isn't a cop. Hoffman clearly knows the mountains of West Virginia. Whether it's his vivid description of the land and wildlife, his depictions of the people who inhabit the abandoned coal mine towns or the history of the region, you'll feel you've been there when you finish the book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Strong crime thriller

    Charley LeBlanc comes from a rich and powerful Tidewater, Virginia family, but that doesn¿t mean he had an easy life. His father was a drunken abusive person so Charley left home to join the army and served in Vietnam. He was dishonorably discharged and did hard time in Leavenworth. He finally has his act together living with his lover Mildred ¿Blackie¿ Spurlock in an isolated area of Montana. He and Blackie return to Cliffside in Shawnee County, West Virginia to check up on Aunt Jessie Arbuckle, a woman who befriended him when many others turned their backs on him. He arrives to find Aunt Jessie dead and Esmeralda, a homeless woman who depended on the charity of Shawnee County to feed and clothe her, charged with her murder. Charley knows through the ties that bind him to Esmeralda that the wrong person is locked away and he intends to find the real perpetrator. William Hoffman uses words to convey colorful images in the mind¿s eye so that the reader senses the environment that the flawed protagonist struggles to adapt to so he can have a peaceful life. Charley is an anti-hero who makes very serious mistakes but is likable because of the tenderness he shows to those few people that he cares about. The story line is beautiful in its simplicity but the author writes about complex people who are put in difficult situations and that makes this novel a fabulous read. Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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