Ashes of the Earth: A Mystery of Post-Apocalyptic America
By Eliot Pattison
Counterpoint Press April 2011
Reviewed by Deirdre M. Murphy
Many things in the dark world depicted in this post-apocalyptic murder mystery aren’t what they first seem to be—a facet of this book that starts with the very first paragraphs:
The faces of the many child suicides Hadrian Boone had cut from nooses or retrieved below cliffs never left him, filled his restless sleep, and encroached in so many waking nightmares that now, as the blond girl with the hanging rope skipped along the ridge above, he hesitated, uncertain whether she was another of the phantoms that haunted him. Then she paused and reached out for the hand of a smaller red-haired girl behind her. Hadrian threw down the shovel he was using to dig out the colony’s old latrine pit, gathered up the chain clamped to his feet, and ran.
He scrambled up the steep slope of the ravine, ignoring the surprised, sleepy curse of his guard and the shrill, angry whistle that followed. Grabbing at roots and saplings to pull himself forward, he cleared the top and sprinted along the trail, his spine shuddering at the expectation of a baton on his back, his gut wrenching at the sound of a feeble shriek from the opposite side of the ridge. As he reached the open shelf of rock, he sprang, grabbed for the swinging rope that hung from a limb over the edge, heaving it up with a groan of despair. He froze as he hauled the child at the end of it back onto the ledge. What he found himself holding was an old coat fastened over a frame of sticks, and he found himself looking into the blank eyes of a pumpkin head with dried wheat for hair.
As fascinating as this opening is, much of what follows in this opening scene grated on me. Parts were heavy-handed and, well, gross. I really am capable of figuring out who’s supposed to be the hero and who’s supposed to be the villain without seeing the protagonist attempt, mostly futilely, to rescue pages of destroyed books from a latrine pit. Happily, as I got further into the book, I found an interesting, nuanced, multi-faceted future world, with an abundance of heroes, villains, and (best of all) people with aspects of both roles.
Other than the first scene, my primary quibble was an inability to resolve two facts: our protagonist, Hadrian Boone, knows nearly everyone in Carthage because he taught nearly every child born there and because he was a founding father of this first thriving settlement after biological agents and radiation killed nearly everyone in the world. Yet he keeps seeing lots of people he doesn’t know or even distantly recognize wandering around Carthage, and this doesn’t surprise him. At times, this contradiction acted like a speed-bump for me as I read, jostling my attention away from the immediate events of the story to the question of just how large Carthage is.
It isn’t long after Hadrian rescues the pumpkin that the first corpse is discovered, and the Governor of Carthage—a former friend of Hadrian’s—rushes to hide the body and the news. It is only when Hadrian points out that this murder could point to a threat to the Governor himself that he commissions Hadrian to find out what happened to the man. The governor attempts to keep Hadrian in line by threatening Hadrian’s oldest living friend, a threat that Hadrian fears even though the old man is the scientist behind much of Carthage’s success, and who is, we are told, the only reason Hadrian has not been exiled already.
Hadrian has only barely started his investigations when there’s another murder—one closer to Hadrian. This new loss turns his determination to find out what happened from a tired and fearful longing for knowledge and justice into a passionate quest.
Hadrian's investigation of the murders leads him to the gritty roots of corruption in this new world, which is all too reminiscent of the flaws in our pre-apocalyptic world. Can he redeem the dreams of the dead men and turn the children away from their suicide cult? Can he redeem himself, and overcome the emotional scars of losing his world and his family before the first log was cut to build Carthage? Can he at least save some part of the history and literature of the modern world from being used as toilet paper and cigarette wrappers?
There's an inherent promise to mystery readers that the murders will be solved. But will doing so do any good, for Hadrian or his world?
I enjoyed finding out.