Lay This Body Down: A Gideon Stoltz Mystery (Gideon Stoltz Mystery Series)
“Fergus’ writing lays out both the struggles of a new nation, and the pains of growing into determined manhood with its allegiances, regrets, and consolations. If murder and kidnapping can be halted, why not enslavement, also?”
The lines of good and evil are firm in this third antebellum mystery from Charles Fergus: Enslavement is brutal and deprives the 1837 American nation of honor. Immediate emancipation could restore that honor—but in Sheriff Gideon Stoltz’s industrial Pennsylvanian town of Adamant, a rough crowd jeers at a visiting speaker advancing such an argument, and Gideon’s role as lawman is keeping the peace. Not advancing abolition.
However, Fergus positions Gideon as an outsider himself, with a strong “Pennyslvania Dutch” German accent that marks his difference in the hardscrabble Scotch-Irish town. Young and inexperienced for his job and without training, supported by his wife and a few friends, Gideon identifies with runaways and victims. It’s a dangerous position when there’s a national law requiring that he enforce “property ownership” toward Black fugitives. Although his state backs away from that position, the town is just 80 miles from Maryland, and his neighbors, a mostly rough crew, could inform on a runaway and expect Gideon to jail that person.
“What if the right thing—whatever it is—and what the law requires turn out to be two different things?” Gideon asks his wife True. Her answer: “I hope you would do the right thing.”
Chapters of Lay This Body Down open with excerpts from historically real reward notices seeking fugitives. When slave hunters turn up in Adamant, seeking a Black youth who’s helped Gideon in the past, what he’ll choose is never in doubt: He owes a debt, and servicing it fits with his growing belief that enslavement is cruel and wrong. Instead, the rapidly ramped-up tension in the book comes from the prevalence of malice among those hunting fugitives and those who already despise Gideon as not one of them, neither by heritage nor by attitude. As he struggles to find and protect this and other runaways, he plunges into personal danger.
In that sense, this is an intimate novel of connection among working men with opposing worldviews. Gideon will only succeed and survive if he can find enough allies to defend his choices and actions. It’s soon clear he’s even being betrayed within his own office. His own superior in law enforcement doesn’t even have his back. But his wife does.
Readers of the earlier two titles in this series (A Stranger Here Below; Nighthawk’s Wing) will not find much of the mystical and supernatural that appeared in those books, although True Burn Stoltz, finding her way out of her long depression over the loss of the couple’s child to illness, clearly relies on a related set of beliefs. Instead, the conflict in this novel foreshadows what was already erupting across the nation’s frontier at the time: ardent beliefs in independence and the sanctity of property, playing against philosophical and humanist efforts to impose a better form of civilization.
Gideon’s weaknesses, part psychological from his own mother’s murder, part physical as a residue of concussion (alas for the results of horse accidents and human beatings!), hold potential to transform into powerful incentives to action. As he prunes away the rot around him, he finds himself able to say to a stranger, “Maybe you can help me.”
Fergus’s writing lays out both the struggles of a new nation, and the pains of growing into determined manhood with its allegiances, regrets, and consolations. If murder and kidnapping can be halted, why not enslavement, also? The author’s meticulous historical portrayal offers a potent integrity, to ground the growth of Gideon Stoltz into a man who’s certain of the right thing to do, after all.