Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Book Review: 'The Strange Curse of Breda' by Steven Arnett

“A deathly pestilence shall sweep over the town.”

Georgia author Steven Arnett earned his degrees from Michigan State University and the University of Maine. Born in Detroit, Michigan he currently lives in Johns Creek, Georgia. To date he has published three novels – THE LABYRINTH, WINNERS AND LOSERS, THE SUMMER OF ROBERT BYRON, DEATH ON LAKE MICHIGAN, THE SHORT STORIES OF STEVEN ARNETT, and now THE STRANGE CURSE OF BREDA.

Steven understands the importance of character building as is evident in a small excerpt from the opening of the book that introduces the mystery serving as the center of focus – February 9, 1889 It was a perfect morning for a hanging. Streaks of light pink and orange silhouetted the snow, sand hills, and pines as Sheriff Jacob Feikema, his deputy Christen Postma, the Reverend Pieter Van Riper, and the condemned man, Obadiah Kurtz, rode to the makeshift gallows that had been built the day before about a mile outside of town. None of the men spoke, and the silence was broken only by the crunch of wagon wheels in the snow. It was the coldest morning that Reverend Van Riper could remember, and he wondered whether it was just the temperature or partly the grimness of their task that made the cold seem to cut to the bone. He decided it was more than the weather. He felt as if there was a cold wind blowing through his soul. He knew that Kurtz wasn’t guilty, that he’d been railroaded to the gallows by a town that didn’t understand him, that was afraid of him, and had jumped at the chance to rid themselves of him after his wife Jessie had died mysteriously. The men were from Breda, which was founded in 1851 by Reverend Van Riper’s father-in-law, the Reverend Heinrik Wijhe, and his followers. Wijhe had left the original Dutch settlement in west Michigan after a falling out with its leader, Dr. Albertus C. Van Raalte. The falling out had to do with ideology—a disagreement about free will and atonement for sin—that led to a bitter break between the two men. Reverend Wijhe’s dark and apocalyptic vision led him to believe that even the staunchly devout Dr. Van Raalte would not escape perdition. The men remained silent as they stopped at the gallows, and Obadiah was led down from the wagon by Deputy Postma. Feikema and Postma and Van Riper were all relieved there’d been no outburst from the prisoner, no more of the ranting speeches about his innocence and the curses that were going to fall upon them. They’d heard those speeches from Obadiah more times than they could count. They were seared into their minds and their consciences…“Here today is committed a great travesty against justice,” Obadiah shouted. “For you who carry it out, I proclaim a curse on you and your children through all the generations. And to your town. Someday my sons or the sons of my sons shall come back and bring a plague to Breda. Your wives and your children and their children shall suffer death at the hands of Satan, shall curse the day they were born.”

The plot of this engrossing mystery follows: ‘It’s 1971 and a horrible murder has occurred near the town of Breda in west Michigan. A young woman, Jane Lucas, has been dragged into the woods and stabbed. The letters ZOSO from the Led Zeppelin album have been written in blood on her waist, which leads the police to think it might be a cult murder. Suspicion falls on the commune located on a farm near the town. The shock and horror townspeople feel after that murder, though, are nothing compared to the shock and horror people feel when another murder and then another murder of the same type occur. The Strange Curse of Breda is about those murders and how they are finally solved. As each murder occurs, the level of fear in Breda intensifies, to the point that the townsfolk either flee the town, arm themselves to the teeth, or fall into an almost catatonic state of fear. The county sheriff, the state police, and even the FBI are baffled. However, Jim Leiden, a young man who runs a small grocery in Breda, finds a clue that may link all the murders together: The hanging of a man named Obadiah Kurtz that occurred in 1889. Jim researches the story and finds that the victims are descendants of the people who were responsible for hanging Obadiah. After Jim’s discovery, he’s in a race against time to try to get the police to believe him and find the murderer before he can kill the only person in the whole world who really matters to him: His beautiful fiancĂ©e Julie Veere, who happens to be one of those direct descendants! ‘

That hints at the fascinating story Steven brings to life. He has a fine sense of place and his pacing in excellent. Refreshingly, there is enough humor to make the story sail along. This is a fine novel for an exciting and entertaining end of summer read.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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