SPRING HOUSE by R. Christian Crabtree; Maine Authors Publishing, 2020; 234 pages, $16.95.

SPRING HOUSE

In Christian Crabtree’s debut novel, “Spring House,” 14-year-old Conner Williamson is a city boy from Virginia sent to northern Maine to spend the summer with his grandfather on a farm. With no TV, no internet and no cell phone Conner feels like he’s being punished — exiled while his parents sort out their troubled marriage.

Crabtree lives in Arrowsic, a former attorney now a full-time writer penning what he describes as “young adult-friendly format” stories. This is an ambitious effort, a complex tale about young teenagers making new friends while figuring out relationships amid teenage hormones, angst and curiosity, but with a sinister tone.

In Morgan Township (pop. 303), Conner and Gramp are a comfortable pair. Gramp teaches Conner how to fish, shoot a rifle, paddle a canoe, care for chickens and goats, and enjoy life’s simple pleasures in a small town. Conner meets two new young friends: a pretty girl named Raylee and a quirky boy named Dickie. The three become good pals, hiking, swimming, going on picnics and hanging out. Think “Mayberry RFD” meets the “Beverly Hillbillies.”

However, a local story about a small child’s abduction seven years before, thought to be taken by “people in the woods,” bothers the kids. Conner has a creepy premonition, and the kids’ idyllic summer suddenly changes. Now think “The Hardy Boys” (and girl) mixed with terrifying menace.

Another disappearance results in unimaginable danger, panic, desperation and violence. Horrifying secrets are uncovered and the kids find themselves on their own. What starts out as a lighthearted young-teenage tale quickly turns into a very scary story that will keep a lot of young readers from ever going into the woods again.

Crabtree clearly has talent — he should be writing thrillers.

BAKER’S DOZEN: A MURPHY WESTERN by Ethan J. Wolfe; Five Star Publishing, 2021; 269 pages, $25.95.

BAKER’S DOZEN: A MURPHY WESTERN 

Murphy is not the typical western lawman. Nobody knows his first name (best not to ask), he speaks little, thinks a lot, uses an icy stare and his fists to produce information. He shoots first, and doesn’t bother to ask too many questions afterward. He is perfect for this detective western story.

“Baker’s Dozen” is the sixth volume in Maine author Ethan Wolfe’s excellent Regulator series featuring the hard-boiled and taciturn lawman. Well-crafted westerns are fun to read, and probably even more fun to write, as Wolfe demonstrates with this clever combination detective mystery and western yarn.

It’s 1882 and a killer is on the loose in New York City, murdering seven men in just two weeks. The killings are similar in that there are no witnesses, no apparent connection, no evidence and just one clue. Copycat killers panic the nation, so President Chester A. Arthur calls Murphy out of semi-retirement to solve the crimes. Murphy is a former soldier, lawman, congressman and Secret Service agent — and his special skills are just what are needed now.

Murphy teams up with his friend Melvin Knoop, a pudgy, brilliant Pinkerton detective, and their investigation is dogged police work until a break surfaces. Threads link clues despite red herrings and deliberate obfuscation. Soon New York City is left behind as Murphy tracks leads throughout the western plains and mountains, gunning down ruthless bushwhackers and murderous bank robbers who get in his way. And a bumbling lawman learns the real reason Murphy is called the Regulator.

Wolfe smartly adds cameos of historical figures like Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph Pulitzer, Jay Gould and President Arthur, as well as hints of emerging forensic science in criminal investigations. This is fast-paced excitement with plenty of gun smoke and hot lead mixed in with a suspenseful western mystery.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.

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