It’s an archetypal plot that has propped up more than a few famous fairy tales: Protagonist enters forest, encounters evil and escapes (barely) with his or her life intact but forever altered. Nashville writer Sallie Bissell gave new meaning to this time-tested storyline with last year’s In the Forest of Harm, a much praised debut thriller that introduced Mary “Killer” Crow, a successful Atlanta prosecutor who is half-Cherokee.
A sort of gender-bending version of James Dickey’s Deliverance, the novel followed Mary and her two friends Joan and Alex into the woods of western North Carolina on a hiking vacation that became a holiday of horrors. In the Nantahala Forest, all the worst-case scenarios that could befall the trio came true, as they were stalked by a pair of killers, one of whom had ties to Mary’s past. In her first book, Bissell took the Nantahala’s glories and turned them inside-out, pitting her characters against the dumb indifference of a vast landscapeone that offered violence instead of benevolence, one in which nature, worse than impassive, seemed simply amoral.
Bissell returns to the woods of western North Carolina with her new book, A Darker Justice (Bantam, $22.95, 352 p.), a more complexly plotted suspense novel that continues the story of Mary Crow. Fourteen months after her ordeal in the Nantahala, Mary faces a ruthless right-wing collective called FaithAmerica. A militant sect headquartered in the Carolina wilderness that trains teenage boys to kill liberal federal judges, the group has a brutal track record that includes the beheading of one female magistrate.
Fearing that the next victim will be Mary’s mentor Irene Hannah, a stubborn judge who refuses federal protection, the FBI asks Mary to protect her. The assignment takes her back to the mountains of Little Jump Off, N.C., where she grew up and where her mother was mysteriously murdered. It’s also the home of her former lover, Jonathan Walkingstick. For Mary, new secrets as well as old lie hidden in the silent hills, and it’s up to her and seasoned FBI agent Dan Safer to unravel themand stay alive.
These are dark doings indeed from Bissell, a Music City native who divides her time between Nashville and Asheville, N.C. If you missed the author’s Jan. 14 reading at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, that’s just one more reason to buy her new book.
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