At the opening of Southern Heat, David Burnsworth’s debut novel, war veteran Brack Pelton plans to have a birthday dinner with his Uncle Reggie in a nice Charleston restaurant. Instead he ends up holding Reggie in an alley as the dying man utters his final words: “Ray shot me.” Brack has no idea why anyone would want to kill his hippie, bar-owning uncle, but he’s determined to find out.
Southern Heat takes readers from old-money mansions to the middle of the projects as Brack searches for the killer even as he becomes a suspect himself. Questionable circumstances arise everywhere he looks: developers stand to make a fortune if Brack will sell his uncle’s property, mysterious happenings unfold at superfund clean-up sites, and a prostitution ring features a host of underage girls. Meanwhile the police are more interested in investigating Brack, Reggie’s sole heir, than in following any of the leads he turns up on his own.
As his search continues, Brack finds that he is not alone in his quest to discover the truth. Darcy Wells, a young reporter who reminds Brack of his late wife, wants to break the story. Darcy’s boss—who also happens to be Reggie’s ex-wife—wants justice as much as Brack does. And he finds unexpected sources of support in the poorer part of town: Brother Thomas of the Church of the Redemption and Mutt, the owner of a nearby dive bar. Brack, who went to Afghanistan hoping to die in combat after his wife died of cancer, finds he may have a place in the world after all. If he survives.
Part of the fun of this novel is Brack’s dark humor. In a bar where the owner’s “boxed afro and lamb-chop sideburns were a few decades off,” he refrains from offering any styling tips on wise grounds: “He was taller than me, and I counted six others in the room who most likely wouldn’t end up on my side if a fight broke out.” And on the other side of town at one of the fine old mansions, he describes the hostess: “A very large woman filled the couch in the center of the room, her legs stretched out over the cushions. Her light-blue summer dress draped over her full figure like the tarp I covered my Mustang with. A small table to her left held a little silver bell with a handle, a cup and saucer, and a dish with pastry crumbs on it. The woman held out her hand in greeting but did not get up from the couch, undoubtedly because the task couldn’t be handled easily.”
Southern Heat is a worthy thriller. Action abounds. Cars explode. Seemingly everyone packs a gun. The body count grows higher and higher. There are plenty of bad guys, but it’s not clear which bad guys are responsible for Reggie’s murder. On a hot, humid day, there may be no better cure for the summertime blues than spending some hours in Charleston with Brack Pelton.
Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in nineteenth-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.