Brian Beattie’s Off Locusts and Wild Honey digs deep into the culture of the American South. More than just another murder mystery, Beattie’s debut novel takes a complex look at a small Alabama community and its residents.
The action begins in Maiden County, Ala., when Eric Brandy, a local firefighter, responds to a two-alarm house fire. The blaze is thought to have been sparked by a methamphetamine operation inside the home, but the more Brandy examines the incident, the less the facts seem to add up. As he kicks in the front door and makes his way into the inferno, Beattie’s brilliant descriptions conjure the thick smoke and intense heat. Here, readers get their first taste of the author’s natural ability to craft rich, vivid prose.
Searching through the flames for any sign of life, Brandy finally emerges from the home, having saved a young girl. Although she is initially presumed to be the daughter of the homeowner, no one seems to know for sure who she is or what she was doing inside the house. She’s taken to an orphanage to recover, and just when it seems she’s safe, things start to get even more complicated. She refuses to talk, eat or interact with the other children.
The mystery Beattie has woven in this novel is multilayered; the fire and its perplexing survivor are just the beginning. In the aftermath of the fire, the small-town drama begins to unravel. Problems of the past, such as the murder of a city councilman more than a decade ago, come to the forefront. Dirty laundry is aired, and the lives of the many characters of Maiden County begin to intersect.
In thrilling courtroom scenes, we see Beattie examine the themes of prejudice, class and family within Southern culture. The intricate relationships between the characters demonstrate just how deeply embedded these themes are. When the pieces of the mystery begin to fall together, when alliances form and fall, we see just how powerful these attitudes can be in shaping the values of the characters.
Beattie, a native of the South and now a public defender in Seattle, has clearly referenced his own experience to create an impressive narrative and a story of courage—always intriguing, at times uplifting and, occasionally, profoundly heartbreaking.