*Trigger Warning: This book review contains talk of very difficult subject matters that might be upsetting for some readers. I’m also going to say some potentially controversial things about religion, so reader beware.*
If ever there were a person qualified to write a legal thriller, it’s Nancy Allen. Ms. Allen is a former Assistant Missouri Attorney General and assistant prosecutor out of Greene County, Missouri, which is the exact location in which I sit while writing this review. She currently teaches law at Missouri State University, my alma mater, and uses her expertise and knowledge of the legal profession to write incredibly compelling legal thrillers. You can find her on the web at http://www.nancyallenbooks.com/. The Code of the Hills is the first novel in the Ozarks Mysteries series. The series follows assistant prosecutor Elsie Arnold as she navigates the frustrating and sometimes stifling environment of the legal field in a small deeply conservative and religious community. She sometimes finds herself taking on cases that not many would want to tackle.
“As a prosecutor who had handled many of these cases, she knew that a strict code of silence generally accompanied a family history of abuse. And something must have happened to crack it. She knew all too well the ways in which terrible wrongs could be hidden from the world.”
– Nancy Allen, Code of the Hills
In Code of the Hills, Elsie is tasked with prosecuting a particularly difficult child rape and incest case involving a father and his three daughters. In rural McCown County, a fictional county in Missouri that Allen has created for her series, people don’t discuss matters such as abuse or neglect, and they especially don’t discuss incest. Members of the police department and the prosecutor’s office, however, know that such evils roil and seethe beneath the surface of the idyllic facade of this small community. Beautiful rural countryside hides an awful truth. Poverty and drug use are rampant, and mothers often can’t or won’t protect their children from the men in the home preying on them, as interfering could get them hurt or killed. Because you really can’t protect you’re children if you’re dead. Elsie is tasked with proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that one such father should be put behind bars for the sake of his family’s safety. But as she’s seen in past cases, this is often easier said than done. Elsie will uncover an even uglier side of her town as her very own life is threatened by the supporters of the assailant, people who will stop at nothing to silence women like Elsie. After all, the Bible says a woman shall remain silent in the presence of a man, and there’s nothing more threatening to these people than a woman in a pantsuit with an opinion and a degree to back it up.
I’ll begin by saying that it’s really obvious that Nancy Allen knows her stuff. Working for the Court system for over 15 years, I’ve seen my fair share of court records from abuse and neglect and child molestation cases, and this book is not wrong. But the saddest reality is that the people tasked with interfering in these cases, from social workers to attorneys, can only do so much and can only do so within the confines of the law. We see Elsie struggle to hold her composure in the rodent and cockroach infested home of a mute little girl, trying desperately to reach her, realizing that even after the father is removed from the home there is still so much standing in the way of this little girl ever having a normal life. Elsie relies on the testimony of two older girls, girls whose years of abuse have already caused irreparable damage. Even when child welfare agencies get involved, it’s often a long and agonizing process that only does further damage to the children.
The real foe, however, for Elsie, is not the defendant. It’s the raging patriarchal prejudice that dictates the decisions made by many members of the community, event those at the top. This book presents us with religious folk, members of what I would call a cult, who sit self righteously in their pews on Sundays and then commit evil and threatening deeds on behalf of a child molester simply because, in their estimation, fathers have inalienable rights as heads of household. These people use threats and coercion to protect the evil and vile criminals in society under the guise of “family values.” There’s a part of me that wants desperately to believe people like this don’t really exist, but I’ve also heard enough crazy ramblings over the past several years to know that OF COURSE THEY DO.
This book also highlights the inherent institutional sexism that even to this day slithers its way through the legal community, ensuring that women have to be twice as good at their jobs as their male counterparts to even be considered for the kind of upper level positions men have enjoyed for years. And many times these positions of power weren’t gained with merit but with political posturing. That good ole’ boys club card is good for a lot more than just entry to the country club for a round of golf. That being said, it’s not just men that enjoy the spoils of political posturing, as evidenced by Elsie’s horrible boss, the wife of some powerhouse businessman and political donor who’d racked up a few favors with higher-ups, ensuring his wife’s appointment despite the fact she doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing. That’s all just a very small taste of what’s in this book. And it’s a big, infuriating mess of WTF. And it will piss you off because there’s so much fact interspersed amongst the fiction.
Let’s talk about Elsie for a moment. On the one hand, I really like the fact that Elsie is actually believable, relatable, and quite flawed. When I say quite flawed, I mean she’s the kind of woman I want to take by the shoulders and shake while yelling, “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU????” But, the thing is, I KNOW what’s wrong with Elsie. Because I feel like a lot of us women who were raised in communities like Elsie’s in Southwest Missouri and similar locales can completely understand what it’s like. Here we are looking at other women in other situations saying, “I could never be like that.” We see the woman being abused by her husband and say, “how can she put up with that?” Or maybe, “why doesn’t she just leave?” But then how many of us have ever been in a room with one of those cock-sure masters of the universe who were born on a pedestal and found ourselves flustered and cowering? Or even merely just disrespected and ignored at a car dealership or a bank or wherever else you encounter the “men are the heads of the household” mentality. How many of us have disappointed ourselves by giving in and just letting things go in these situations, not standing up to the old man who tells us all our problems will be fixed if we’d just find a husband? In Elsie we see a woman who originally believes herself to be strong, confident, and very unlike the women she often encounters in her profession. But everything that happens to her challenges that notion. It opens her mind to the notion of sisterhood and understanding that as women, we’re all fighting somewhat the same battle. And, often, that battle is with those elements of ourselves that echo the sentiments we’ve always been fed that maybe, just maybe, we can’t really measure up. The challenge is how to arm ourselves against the vicious attacks that aren’t necessarily physical but are still just as damaging. Unfortunately, we carry damage from the toxic things we’ve been fed in childhood and find ourselves tasked with retraining our brains. My favorite thing about Elsie, ultimately, was that I saw a lot of growth in her. I won’t lie, though, the journey was a bit tough to bear and I didn’t always like her. Then again, I don’t always like myself either.
This whole story was tough to bear. Perhaps it hit a bit close to home. I mean, it literally is home. It’s a birds-eye view into all the things I hate about the community in which I live. The religious zealotry that dictates decisions and has permanently altered political ideals, cherry picking the most atrocious things from the Bible to excuse their prejudices. I’m not trying to make this a critique of religion, of course. I don’t find these opinions I’m discussing to actually be biblically based, but a pure bastardization of the original principals. It’s mostly driven by fear instead of by faith, and that’s where communities go astray, and that’s why rational people find themselves leaving organized religion in droves. Can you blame them?
Needless to say, this book is a challenge. It’s emotionally challenging, it’s heavy, and it drains you of just a little bit of hope for humanity with each page. Ultimately I think the journey was worth it, and these are definitely topics that need to be discussed. I’m not one to put down something just because the message is a little irksome. If it’s important, it needs to be said, and I need to absorb it and carry it with me into the future. I realize I wound up making this review a bit long without really talking much about the substance or the writing. Overall, I can tell that Ms. Allen has a lot of experience in the legal field. Very much of the narration deals with procedural legalese, though it was easily digestible and I didn’t feel like the story got lost in all that, so well done. It was good but not necessarily masterful writing. Sometimes I felt like I needed a break, because it’s full of such awful negative stuff. Then again, that’s what an authentic story is: depressing and soul-sucking descent into humanity’s abyss. Overall rating, 3 1/2 stars.