Books: Hot and cold Ham

Indiana Gothic by Pope Brock Review pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
Indiana Gothic is a brilliant fusion of In Cold Blood and The Bridges of Madison County. Brock has novelised a period in his family's history that was kept quiet for nearly 80 years, until a great-aunt spilled the beans on her death-bed. One would never think he was so far removed from the events; authors can rarely write so richly without recourse to autobiography. To re-create a period, chart a plot or to attain emotional depth in the way this novel has would all be major achievements taken alone. To have them all is very special.

The story was a local sensation in 1908. Ham Dillon, an ambitious farm owner and politician, was not content with only one of the statuesque Thompson daughters. You could say he was destined for one of them, but met the wrong one, Maggie, first. More likely, she and her older sister Allie even together were not enough. He had no complaints about Maggie, but Allie's spouse had been a disappointment. She had married Lincoln Hale, her school teacher, only to outgrow him and hold him in contempt. The cuckolded Hale took a long time to discover his wife's infidelities - long enough to raise his brother-in-law's child as his own for a time. A weak man made weaker by his wife's strength, he was broken by the affair. His insanity, a murder trial and the Midwest's best attempt at a media circus ensued.

The author stresses in the preface that the plot is faithful to the events; that not even the timeline was rearranged to add drama. He is selling himself short. No murky family recollections or afternoons of research in the public record office could create the cast of this book. His imagination must take far more of the credit. Each player in Indiana Gothic is treated as though he or she alone were its central character. The dialogue and the interplay between characters is no less sharp, and there is a wealth of human insight here. "Maggie just felt more comfortable admiring [Ham] across the dinner table, or watching him striding in from a field brushing grain dust off his clothes, than when he put out his hand to touch her. Well, now he knew. The cold can be devoted, like anybody else." For her part, Maggie "kept her personality furled like a flag, then once in a while let it snap in the wind".

Ham Dillon is an adventure in masculinity. He takes without melodrama and bears no malice towards anyone he treads on. We all know the type: a controlled arrogance masquerading as an inner peace. Quite attractive to himself and irresistible to women in long dresses. Brock knows how a person who has met his match does not stay met for ever, and he knows what this leads to. As the writer of Job said, and Ham himself is so fond of quoting: "Yea, man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward." Allie Hale is a worthy counterpart. As belle of the ball, her memories of love-struck clerks and farmers are "a smashed mirror of slicked-down hair and mooning faces". Nature is an aristocracy, and someone like her would see no use in saying otherwise. As she wrote in her mother's memory book on the eve of her wedding day, "Of course, you'll expect something original,/But I'll tell you before I begin,/That there's nothing original in me,/Excepting Original Sin.'

Pope Brock had previous incarnations as an actor and then a journalist. According to his publicity he has cracked a horse-killing ring and been chased by tomb-robbers in Peru. He has been around, but he has certainly found his vocation now.