When a Southern writer gets compared to William Faulkner -- an event that occurs approximately every seven minutes, by my estimation -- readers have cause for trepidation. Too often that means pages of clotted, semidecipherable prose describing subjects that include underbrush, unfamiliar farm equipment and, worst of all, the weather. But do not let such comparisons scare you away from Tom Franklin's "Hell at the Breech," for despite some blessedly brief passages of landscape description and baffling observations on the climate (how can the sky be "green"?), this lean, mean and expertly plotted tale of a real-life bushwhacking war in 1890s Alabama owes more to Raymond Chandler than to the bard of Yoknapatawpha County. (Don't get me wrong, I love Faulkner. But still.)
The Mitcham War of Clarke County, Ala., was a gang conflict of sorts, set off by a group of backwoodsmen and small-time cotton farmers who formed a secret alliance to defend themselves from the depredations of "the town," specifically, the town of Coffeeville. The gang, calling itself Hell-at-the-Breech, wore hoods and other disguises, bullied everyone else in the neighborhood into swearing allegiance by signing their names in blood to a grubby document, and not incidentally discovered ample opportunities for armed robbery and wanton violence in the course of their "freedom fighting." The carnage escalated over the course of a year, and the town put together a posse to clean out the area known as Mitcham Beat. This resulted in a bloody and indiscriminate massacre.
Franklin announces that he has "taken great liberties in the writing of this novel," but one central character, aging county sheriff Billy Waite, is historical in name, at least. The other pair of eyes through which we witness the intricate, unflagging action in "Hell at the Breech" belongs to Macky Burke, an orphan who, with his brother, has been raised by the local midwife and indentured for two years to the keeper of the Beat's general store, Tooch Bedsole, in order to pay off the widow's account. Fifteen-year-old Macky has a secret: He accidentally killed the store's former owner, Tooch's cousin, in a botched robbery attempt. That unsolved murder, which Tooch blames on "town folks," led to the formation of the Hell-at-the-Breech gang.
After the gang murders an upstanding local farmer, Waite sets himself to proving that he's not too old to perform his duties. Meanwhile, Macky, too young to sign on with Hell-at-the-Breech, keeps his head down and his eyes open, and more often than not gets stuck cleaning up the mess afterward. That involves some grave digging. Add to this brew a couple of genuine sociopaths -- one a member of the gang and in it for the killing and the other passing himself off as a detective and law enforcement aspirant to the gullible local judge -- and "Hell at the Breech" simmers with unnerving brutality and black humor.
The novel is also an elegant dissection of a catastrophe, namely the climactic massacre, in which innocent people are killed. Waite, a beat-up old shoe of a man who can't talk to his pious wife and takes to drink when the situation starts to veer out of control, is like one of those complicated late John Wayne characters, fundamentally decent but not above a little extralegal violence if that's the only way to prevent more killing. Mostly, though, he upholds the law, even when he's forced to preside over a dicey farm foreclosure that will leave a poor family homeless. But as much as "Hell at the Breech" may sound like a western, it's not; its view of human nature is too bleak. Everyone in it is morally compromised, as the novel's final twist reveals. That makes it feel like a noir, a rural noir, if there can be such a thing. But whatever you call it, it's pretty damn hard to put down.