I finished reading Matthew F. Jones's brilliant backwoods noir, A SINGLE SHOT (1996), the other day and I knew two things after reading just the first chapter. One, I absolutely had to keep reading because the narrative had its' hands around my throat and two, things were definitely not going to turn out well for our protagonist, one John Moon, a good, lonely man in what appears to be upstate New York, a man whose life goes to hell in a horse drawn wagon all because of a single shot.
The story opens with Moon venturing alone into a protected wilderness area on a deer hunt. Yes, he's poaching, but he hopes to kill a deer and give most of the venison to his estranged wife and infant son. He's a poor, proud, not-very-bright man just trying to provide for his family. He shoots a deer but doesn't kill it and he's forced to track the wounded animal deeper into the wilderness where the bloody trail eventually leads him to an abandoned granite quarry. Moon hears a sound in the brush, sees movement out of the corner of his eye and shoots, thinking it's the deer.
Instead, he's shot and killed a fourteen-year-old runaway girl. Then he finds a large stash of cash along with the girls' belongings. He puts the girls' body in a cave and takes the money and runs. End of first chapter and the beginning of Moon's nightmare.
Of course the money belongs to bad guys, very bad guys, who come after Moon in a variety of ways. Moon slowly becomes unhinged from reality during the course of his ordeal, worshipping the dead girl and kinda/sorta falling in love with her (there's a slight whiff of necrophilia here). Moon isn't very smart, but he has survival skills and backwoods know-how that allows him to stay slightly ahead of the doom upon his trail but only for a few days as the noose tightens with inexorable dread. The bodies mount, the violence becomes graphic and extreme (the finger cutting scene will make you squirm, guaranteed) and Moon fights a desperate race to stay alive. No more details here, except to say that the ending is definitely unsettling and a shocker.
A SINGLE SHOT is written entirely in the present tense which gives the action an urgent sense of immediacy. The prose is spare, beautiful, haunting and yes (look out, 'cuz here comes the dreaded "P" word), poetic. But it's a close kin to James Dickey's masterpiece DELIVERANCE in depicting the too-easy, almost casual danger that lurks in America's woodlands. There's also a strong sense of Scott Smith's brilliant debut novel, A SMPLE PLAN (1993), which was filmed by Sam Raimi in 1998.
Originally written in 1996, A SINGLE SHOT was re-released in nice trade paperback editions by Mulholland Books in 2011 and again in 2013 (to tie in with the film version of the novel, which I have not yet seen). Mulholland, an imprint of Little, Brown, is a great little label dedicated to publishing quality, contemporary crime fiction.
A SINGLE SHOT is a can't put it down book, a whirlwind ride into darkness and despair that is masterfully and skillfully executed. Highly recommended.