The Strange Curse of Breda by Steven Arnett is a thoroughly enjoyable read for fans of crime novels such as myself. It has a few interesting peculiarities. Spoiler? What spoiler? We know the killer right away. The next mystery is motive. We don’t know motive right away but we know it is dark, it is going to be connected somehow to 1889 even though the murders are taking place in the 1970s, and the murderer will gradually be revealed as a psychotic nut job. With all that we know, with all the foreshadowing, how can this be a good read? Steven Arnett’s presentation makes it a page-turner that the reader will stay with for approximately 150 pages and will possibly leave the reader with a question I will add at the end of this review.
While the storytelling about a serial murderer plays out, the reader is entertained with depictions of small-town life. Towns like Breda live on the edge economically. The panic caused by an unknown killer can cause people to move away as they abandon their homes. Those who stay lock themselves inside of their homes and do not participate in the commerce that allows a store owner like Jim Leiden to make enough money to keep his store open. Readers watch as Leiden’s store becomes less of a place where trade happens and more as a center of gossip about why certain people were killed, who the killer might be, and who the next victim might be. Arnett uses the store setting to introduce tongue-in-cheek humor as some town residents gang up on the prejudiced rantings of Jack Booth. Readers can look back with nostalgia to the hippie bashings of the 1970s, the yearnings of a return to old Southern intolerant norms, and the beginnings of a political base for a candidate named Wallace. [[Digression Alert—Does any of this sound familiar? — as in the current National Farce?]]
A stereotype buster is Sheriff Mathers. This character is developed so well as to be almost unbelievable. He is tolerant of the hippies, respects rights afforded by law, and puts up with a lot of disrespect from federal and other state law enforcement personnel. Storekeeper Leiden also is a well-developed character who introduces us to genealogy as a crime-busting tool.
The central tension for the reader is in the race between the killer and those attempting to discover his identity. Arnett keeps the tension building and the reader will turn the pages faster as the story unfolds. This is good storytelling for which I give five Amazon stars. Even meteorologists get to play an important part in this novel.
And there is the final question which I would be willing to bet several readers asked themselves. This is the unstated mystery. Is this a real case or is this a work of fiction? I feel this is akin to the Blair Witch Project in that some people will accept it as “true crime” rather than fiction. The ability to create that feeling reflects Steven Arnett’s skill as a writer and is also a reason for me to give this novel five Amazon stars.