When he doesn’t show up for school with his homemade pies for Pi Day, Adam Merkel’s middle school colleagues start worrying about their new math teacher. By third period, it’s announced that the teacher has been found dead and it was one of his 6th grade students, Sal Prentiss, who had found his burned body on his way to school that morning. Heather Young’s sophomore novel, The Distant Dead, is set in Marzen, Nevada, the sort of small dying town where everyone knows every one else’s business and most folks dream of leaving, although only a lucky few actually escape. It has no police force, so Sal goes to the fire station to report finding the burned body and Jake, the firefighter on duty is not at all prepared for this kind of situation. Like most in town, Jake knows of Sal’s sad story, that he’d recently moved in with his two reclusive and potentially criminal Prentiss uncles after the tragic death of his parents. Nora, the middle school social studies teacher, who had reluctantly moved back to town to care for her ailing and alcoholic father appoints herself as Sal’s special friend after he’d found the burned body.
Told in the alternating voices of Sal, Jake and Nora, the murder investigation delves ever deeper into the community and its interconnected residents and their shared past. Whispering townspeople had wondered why Mr. Merkel had left teaching college the year before to teach middle school math and the reserved teacher would never talk about it. There are many layers to this brilliant genre-defying story of a young boy who must grow up fast without really knowing who’s got his back.
The reader who is looking for a quick page turner might be disappointed by this book with its beautifully rendered settings and well-drawn characters. But if you’re looking for a book that will draw you in to its world and make you feel uncomfortably at home as you try to solve a mystery, you will love this book. Because, although small towns can feel claustrophobic and dreary, there are generally good people who want to do the right thing for those in need. This was an exhilarating and satisfying read. Highly recommended. Would be good for book clubs, as well.