I like mysteries that are based more on character than plot, and Lee Martin’s Pulitzer Prize Finalist, The Bright Forever, is one of those. It is as much about the social dynamics of small towns and the destructive power of isolation as the tragedy that results.
Pieces of the story unfold from the point of view of three marginal residents of a small Indiana town they have never, for differing reasons, become a part of. The mystery, unraveled piece by piece, is how their loneliness combines to seal the fate of a nine-year-old child. The child’s brother provides the sole voice from the town proper.
Mr. Dees teaches math at the local high school but is otherwise an isolate, living at the edge of town. Raymond R., a neighbor of Mr. Dees, a ne’er-do-well who has been excluded from others since childhood, is liked by no 0ne. Clara is a widow who, in her loneliness, fell in love with and married Raymond. When Katie Mackey disappears, suspicion falls on Mr. Dees, and while his story raises our suspicions, it doesn’t fit with guilt. The three have become as close to friendship as they are capable, leading to collusion. Each of the voices add pieces, but they do not explain. Katie’s brother Gilley brings the voice of the agonized family, disintegrated by grief and together we are swept by the dangerous but all too human forces toward the end—the crime and its tragic aftermath.
For readers captivated by the question of why people do what they do, this story is powerful and engrossing. I’d love to hear from other readers whether Martin brings the tale to a satisfying conclusion. My own reaction was mixed. For me he falls one step short of making this particular crime inevitable, but on the larger story of how loneliness and exclusion combine to create dangerous forces, she succeeds beautifully.