The title of Tom Wright’s debut novel What Dies in Summer suggests that it is a bog-standard contemporary crime thriller. It is a long-standing cliché, for instance, for crime novels to use the word “death” or one of its derivatives in their titles. With its depiction of a young female with her back to the viewer, set against a reasonably non-descript background, the cover is also very much derivative of contemporary crime fiction. The long shoots of hay are perhaps a change from the usual black-and-white scenes of urban deprivation, but the formula is still evident. However, throw in a cover quotation from Ian Rankin comparing the novel to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and a laudatory blurb on the inside by avant-garde musician and writer Nick Cave and What Dies in Summer quickly becomes a far more promising book.
Indeed, Wright’s novel proves to be far more innovative than the title or cover suggest. In many ways, in fact, it is not readily recognisable as “crime fiction” in any traditional sense. The narrative may be characterised by mysteries but these are not of the whodunit variety. The main character and narrator of What Dies in Summer is a teenager from Oak Cliff, Texas. He is named Jim Beaudry on his birth certificate but is referred to as “Biscuit” throughout. The story that Biscuit tells is that of one summer when he and his cousin L.A. (Lee Ann) stumble across the raped and mutilated corpse of a teenage girl and the two become involved in alarming and uncomfortable ways in the investigation of this murder.
Like the title and cover, this plot summary makes the novel sound rather lacking in originality in terms of contemporary crime fiction. Thankfully, this is not the case. While the corpse would show up in the first chapter of a traditional crime narrative, and the rest of novel would be dominated by the investigation, in What Dies in Summer the cousins do not even discover the body until halfway through the novel. Biscuit’s narration does occasionally indicate that something bad is going to happen, in the manner of the “Had-I-But-Known” school of early American mystery fiction, exemplified by the work of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Mostly, however, the first half of the novel has nothing to do with the novel’s supposedly central mystery. Rather, it is spent building up a vivid, fascinating, and often unnerving picture of Biscuit’s day-to-day life. Even without the murder, the narrative voice and the experiences that are depicted are striking enough in their own right to warrant What Dies in Summer; they are certainly not subordinate to the mystery.
The author’s background as a clinical psychotherapist is evident in the strong air of authenticity with which the novel presents Biscuit’s unconventional family life. He lives with his grandmother (“Gram”) and his cousin L.A. because his father is dead and his mother is in a relationship with a violent drunk who regularly beats her and Biscuit. To add to the confusion, Biscuit also has frequent sexual fantasies about L.A. The way that Wright renders Biscuit regarding these various dreadful aspects of his life is particularly effective. He is not filled with resentment about the terrible circumstances that life has dealt him, but he is resilient and has a wit and an emotional intelligence that is revealed obliquely: “It had been my experience that nobody ever went broke overestimating how bad people could be” .
Striking a chord with films as diverse as Night of the Hunter (1955) and Days of Heaven (1978), What Dies in Summer is a dark but rich narrative which resists conventional structures, uses a striking mode of narration, and handles its supernatural and psychological dimensions with flair. It is much better than the title and cover would suggest.