William Hoffman

"Wild Thorn"

(Reviewed by Chuck Barksdale MAR 31, 2003)

In this sequel to the 1999 Hammett Award winning Tidewater Blood, Charley LeBlanc, an outcast originally from a rich and famous Tidewater Virginia family, returns from Montana to an area of his youth, Cliffside, Shawnee County, West Virginia. LeBlanc returns with his girlfriend Blackie Spurlock who is also originally from the area. Upon arrival, LeBlanc discovers that the woman he is to visit, Aunt Jessie, has been murdered, and the woman who Aunt Jessie takes care of, Esmeralda, has been sent to a mental hospital and is the key suspect in the murder.

Although LeBlanc keeps his reason for concern about Esmeralda to himself (although slowly revealing them to the reader), he doesn't believe Esmeralda is a killer and he searches for evidence to the real killer. As he travels around the town looking for clues he encounters many interesting people and potential suspects. Three people critical to the book are the wealthy Duncan St. George, his wife Jeannie Bruce St. George and Duncan's son, Angus St. George. They all live at the Wild Thorn property that they are developing into a resort. All of the St. George's had had some contact with Aunt Jessie especially since she had land they wanted to annex to their Wild Thorn property. In addition, Angus was a witness to Esmeralda leaving Aunt Jessie's house shortly after her murder.

Since I hadn't read Tidewater Blood, I wasn't sure as I was reading this book if Hoffman was keeping information from the reader or if he expected the reader to know about LeBlanc and his family from the previous book. Although I'm sure I would have benefited from reading Tidewater Blood (and I'm hoping to read it soon), as I read further into the book, I realized that Hoffman was intentionally leaving clues to later in the book and reading the previous book was not needed.

This book has more literary style than a typical mystery/suspense novel somewhat reminiscent of the style, although certainly not the same images, of James Lee Burke. Since I had tired of Burke, I was concerned that I would find this book tiring as well, especially with the drawn out beginning, as in the third paragraph, not unlike the first two and several after.

"In shifting scenes played against the murky night, I pictured another time, another place -- not mountains like the craggy giants of western Montana or the glacial summits that held skullcaps of snow long into summer and beyond, but elevations forested and tamed that pushed up a measly three or four thousand feet, what the natives hereabouts would consider little more than buttes. The mountains of southern West Virginia weren't gnawed upon by erosion as in the Badlands or kin to the jagged peaks of the Rockies but would this time of year be uncurling moistly green and yielding reluctantly to spring. Beneath them ran not strata of copper, silver, and gold but of low-sulfur coal produced by millennia of the past when luxuriant swamp vegetation decayed and became compacted to petrifaction under the earth's overburden till finally transformed into black diamonds -- both the blessing and curse of what in part was a forlorn and desperate land."

Good stuff, I guess, but too much of this puts me to sleep. Fortunately, after a slow beginning, these types of passages are more evenly spaced, and more of the book contains interesting dialogues and descriptions of people. This, in my opinion, is where Hoffman is at his best, as in the first person impressions that Charlie has when he first meets Jeannie Bruce St. George.

"She had a full painted mouth, the lips tending toward a smirk, and she was definitely trim and fit. At her height her green eyes met mine leveled. I expected she worked out, likely ran, maybe lifted weights, and she carried evidence in the Mercedes of being a golfer.

I opened the Caddy's door for her. She pulled in those long, well-shaved legs and caught my glance at them. When she started the engine, she shifted into D while holding her foot on the brake. She pulled off her cap to shake out her hair. It curled upward and inward around her neck."

Hoffman adds much to the characterization of the people and the town to make the story real. Key parts include Charley's relationship with Blackie and his rich and successful brother Edward. Since Charley, while in West Virginia is not too far from the Richmond, Virginia home of his brother, Charley is asked to meet with his brother. Hoffman clearly shows the animosity and differences that exist between the two brothers.

"You're looking well, Charles," Edward said. "Montana must be treating you royally. I'd like to travel out to that country one day."

"I don't think it's your type of show, Edward."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, the room service out my way's lacking."

"Ah, Charles, let's try to be family again," he said, and leveled his glasses. He'd aged. Lines spread fanlike from the corners of his eyes.

"That's going to be tough. You and I were never much family."

"Can't we put those bad times behind us? I'm willing. Where are you staying?"

"I'm not staying anywhere, and notice you didn't invite me to bed down at your place."

"I apologize. Patricia's having our house remodeled. I can hardly find my shoes and socks. I wish you could meet my daughter Janice, who today's having her riding lesson. Shall we sit?" he asked and indicated the straight chair in front of his desk.

"We shall," I said and we did.

"You have family these days?" he asked.

"I live with a woman. She's my family."

"I'm happy you've become domesticated."

"That's not what I've become," I said. Edward had no sense of humor. In my whole life I'd never heard him guffaw. When tempted to laughter, he swallowed and choked upon it.

Wild Thorn is the first book I've read by William Hoffman. If this well written book with realistic interesting, yet flawed characters is typical of Hoffman, then I'll be sure to read his future books as well as attempt to find his other eleven, mostly rare novels and four short story collections.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

* Partial Sequels

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About the Author:

William Hoffman was born in 1925 in Charleston, West Virginia . Hoffman was raised in the home of his great-grandfather, a coalmine owner and a member of the local aristocracy. His mother was a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy and Hoffman spent large amounts of time in Virginia, including attending camp there each summer. He served three years in the US Army during World War II (1943-46) and served with the army medical corps during the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, Hoffman attended Hamden-Sydney College in Virginia, earning a BA in 1949 and then did graduate study at both Washington and Lee University and the University of Iowa. He returned to Hamden-Sydney as an assistant professor of English literature in 1952, and has served as a professor and writer-in-residence sporadically since that time.

Hoffman married Alice Sue Richardson in 1957. The couple has two children and three grandchildren. They live in Virginia.

William Hoffman died September 12, 2009.

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