It's been several years since the publication of Daniel Woodrell's slim, harrowing and much-celebrated "Winter's Bone." Now "The Maid's Version" has finally hit the bookstores, and it's even slimmer - just 164 pages. But don't let that fool you. Woodrell can pack more story, truth and human emotion in that space than most writers can in three times the pages.
The new novel was inspired by a real event, an explosion that destroyed a dance hall in West Plains, Mo., in the 1920s, killing dozens of young people. Growing up in the Ozarks, Woodrell heard the back-porch stories - whispers that the tragedy was no accident and that someone a member of his family once worked for might have somehow been to blame.
The author chose to tell his highly fictionalized version of a story through the memories of Alma DeGeer Dunahew as she gradually reveals facts, rumors and suspicions to her grandson. Alma - bitter, vengeful and somewhat dotty - thinks the rich banker she once worked for as a maid deliberately caused the explosion that killed, among others, her promiscuous sister. But other characters, including mobsters from St. Louis, local gypsies and a preacher who saw the dance hall as a den of iniquity, provide a host of plausible suspects.
The book's first line introduces Alma from the grandson's point of view in Woodrell's typically stark fashion: "She frightened me every dawn the summer I stayed with her."
On one level, the story is a who-dunnit, but it is much more than that. "The Maid's Version" is a superbly textured novel about a community coping with tragedy and poisoned by suspicions and festering anger. It is a novel about memory and about growing old. And it is also an exploration of the nature of storytelling itself.
Woodrell tells his story partly through the colloquial voices of its Ozark characters and partly through narration that manages to be both hard-boiled and richly poetic. Readers will be reminded once again why critics so often compare him to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.
Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award, is the author of "Cliff Walk" and "Rogue Island."