Westerns aren’t exactly my style but I’ve been a fan of Glenn Taylor’s novels since his first, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. Set, like the previous two, in his home state of West Virginia, A Hanging at Cinder Bottom is a rip-roaring tale of small town life in the coal rush where powerful men make their own kind of law and corruption is the name of their game. The city of Baltimore comes up once or twice which is perhaps why The Wire popped into my head but a more appropriate comparison would be with Boardwalk Empire. Whichever, in the right hands, it would make a corker of a film.
It begins in August 1910 with Abe Baach and Goldie Toothman about to face execution. Keystone is all agog: it’s the first public hanging in years and people have come from all over McDowell County to see the show. A Punch and Judy stall tells their story, handbills are distributed, last photographs of the handsome couple – both dressed in their finery – are taken. Rutherford Rutherford, Keystone’s lawman, stands up to make his speech which is, shall we say, a little windy. His customary morning breakfast of six hardboiled eggs seems to be giving him a little trouble but he still relishes the thought of what is to come: the execution of the two people he loathes most in his small world. Just after the condemned have had their say the noon train pulls into the station, a small army of men jumping from its empty coal hoppers. Stuffed with colourful characters, goodies, baddies, gambling, cheating, a fantastically elaborate con and a monkey, the rest of Taylor’s novel is the story of how Abe and Goldie arrived on that gallows platform.
In his author’s note Taylor calls his novel ‘an unruly work of fiction’ which describes beautifully the comings, goings, adventures, misadventures and general shenanigans which make up his story but the way each part slots neatly together is far from unruly. The cliff-hanging first chapter sets us up nicely for what comes after but it’s not until the last few pages that you’ll appreciate just how cleverly the foundations have been laid for the denouement. Taylor engages our affections for Abe and Goldie from the start, spinning his yarn over an enjoyable few hundred pages in which a great deal of humour is mixed with tragedy and adventure until we learn their fate. The final, wonderfully theatrical chapter is a triumph which had me chuckling with satisfaction as the many stealthily laid clues resolve themselves. It’s a rollicking good read and I’m sure that Taylor had a great deal of fun writing it. There is a sober side, though – Taylor is careful to point out in his acknowledgements that the real McDowell County suffers from neglect, both public and corporate. In a nice touch, the novel is dedicated to its people, ‘past, present and future’.