Friday, February 5, 2016

John Billheimer, Highway Robbery

John Billheimer, Highway Robbery
The Mystery Company/Crum Creek Press
Originally published in 2000
ISBN 978-1-932325-41-6

This is the second book by Billheimer featuring Owen Allison, a civil engineer whose current work involves analysis of structural failures.  He has returned home to West Virginia (from California) at his mother’s request, to try to help his brother George (also an engineer, and Superintendent of Highways for the state).  The story is set in 1997, 35 years after their father, Wayne, who was Superintendent of Highways at a time when highway construction was (in fact) riddled with corruption (from the Governor’s office on down), died in a flood.  (Let me say that Wayne, far from being corrupt, was pushing very hard to wipe it out.)  Owen also reconnects with his best friend Bobby Cantrip (who operates a school for drivers who have to rehabilitate themselves after driving offenses), and his high school flame.

A corpse appears buried under the asphalt of an old road in the process of being widened to four lanes.  And it’s the body of Ray Cantrip, Bobby’s father, who had also been presumed to have died in the 1962 flood.  Except for the bullet.  Additional deaths lead to George being arrested for murder, and Owen’s ex-wife Judith coming from California to defend him. 

This is a stunningly constructed and written book, with a complex plot, a satisfying (in some ways) conclusion, and characters that I frankly love.  I liked the first book in the series (Contrary Blues).  I love this one.  It is by far the best book I have read in 2016, and had I read it in 2015, it would have been the best book I read in 2015.  It deserved to be a much greater critical and commercial success than it was.  The book in the Owen Allison series are:

The Contrary Buues (1998; also available from The Mystery Company/Crum Creek Press)
Highway Robbery
Dismal Mountain
(2001; also available from The Mystery Company/Crum CreekPress)
Drybone Hollow
Stonewall Jackson’s Elbow

The first 3 are available in print and in ebook formats.  The final 2 are available from used book sellers.

But a word about West Virginia.  I lived there for 5 years (August 1970 – July 1975), while I was in grad school; I was for that entire time an outsider.  But the portrait of the state presented by Billheimer (a West Virginia native) certainly reflects what I, as an outsider, read and saw about the state.  Less corrupt by the early 1970s, certainly, but the legacy was felt.  In 1976, John D. Rockefeller IV (known as Jay) was elected governor, succeeding Arch Moore (to whom he had lost in 1972; Moore was convicted on federal charges of corruption in 1990, following a guilty plea which he subsequently tried to withdraw).  By the time of Rockefeller’s election as governor, I had left the state, but my friends there said one reason he was elected was that everyone knew that you could not bribe a Rockefeller.

Besides the highway construction scandals, the state was beset by failures of badly constructed dams (in which mine runoff was impounded), with the most notorious dam failure occurring when the dam on Buffalo Creek failed (February 26, 1972, in Logan County (roughly 60   miles SSW of Charleston, the state capitol.  This is the beginning og the description of the disaster, from Wikipedia:

The Buffalo Creek flood was a disaster that occurred on February 26, 1972, when the Pittston Coal Company's coal slurry impoundment dam #3, located on a hillside in Logan County, West Virginia, burst, four days after having been declared 'satisfactory' by a federal mine inspector.[1]

The resulting flood unleashed approximately 132,000,000 US gallons (500,000 m3) of black waste water, cresting over 30 ft high, upon the residents of 16 coal towns along Buffalo Creek Hollow. Out of a population of 5,000 people, 125 were killed, 1,121 were injured, and over 4,000 were left homeless. 507 houses were destroyed, in addition to forty-four mobile homes and 30 businesses.[1] The disaster destroyed or damaged homes in Saunders, Pardee, Lorado, Craneco, Lundale, Stowe, Crites, Latrobe, Robinette, Amherstdale, Becco, Fanco, Braeholm, Accoville, Crown and Kistler. [2] In its legal filings, Pittston Coal referred to the accident as "an Act of God."

This was not the first, nor would it be the last, mine-related dam to fail in West Virginia.  Many of the dams that failed had been approved and rated safe by state inspectors.

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