Don Noble
1:10 pm
Tue October 9, 2007

The Sooty Man

There are now, as all the world knows, loads of lawyers who also write. There are even a few MD's?like Michael Crichton?who write. To the best of my knowledge, Dr. Steven Rudd, MD, of Birmingham, practicing neurologist and attorney, is sui generis, the only one of his kind.

There are now, as all the world knows, loads of lawyers who also write. There are even a few MD's?like Michael Crichton?who write. To the best of my knowledge, Dr. Steven Rudd, MD, of Birmingham, practicing neurologist and attorney, is sui generis, the only one of his kind.

Rudd has created an ongoing protagonist named Kris Van Zant, whose father had been the director of Bryce Hospital. As a child, Kris had watched a madman called the Tuscaloosa Werewolf murder her father, mother, and brother. Dr. Van Zant is now a practicing psychiatrist in Atlanta, where in Rudd's first novel, Midnight Red, she found the killer, who had been draining bodies of their blood, vampire-style, all over Buckhead.

In The Sooty Man, Dr. Van Zant is called in to solve a mystery in a small Alabama town, Creek's Ford, located, in the novel, one hundred miles west of Atlanta. Her employer is Colonel J.S. Stirling, owner of the mega-corporation Stirling Paper Co.

Ten years earlier, the Colonel's seventeen-year-old granddaughter Annabel had gone missing. Then, recently, her body had been found in a grave in the forest, but minus its head. The Colonel and nearly everyone in Creek's Ford believe the crime to have been committed by the Sooty Man, a grotesque, seven-foot-tall woodland creature, who inhabits the forest and, like Sasquatch or Bigfoot, is occasionally sighted.

The action moves all around Creek's Ford, where the deceased Annie has a surviving brother and sister and other family and friends, all of whom are potential suspects, as far as Kris is concerned.

No sooner does Kris begin investigating, though, than the suspects begin to die, murdered and decapitated. Her job then becomes to find the cause of Annie's death and to stop the rash of present-day murders.

Both in this novel and in Midnight Red, Dr. Van Zant is brilliant, sexy, and beautiful. In The Sooty Man, Rudd has added to her character a tad. Besides being merely intuitive, he has made her an empathic clairvoyant, like Commander Troy of the Starship Enterprise. Kris figures out fairly early what had happened ten years earlier and why (although no one tells the reader). All the while, she seems to know that the solution to this mystery is going to cause a lot of pain.

Kris teams up with the local sheriff, a good old boy named Doug Roy Cowan, and his deputy, Danny Bob. Also a part of the investigation is the teenage Trish, Annie's much younger sister and a budding investigative journalist.

About law and human anatomy, Dr. Rudd knows heaps. The best parts of this novel are those in which Rudd is explaining something, something he already knows, like how a head might become severed by accident, or something he took the trouble to research, like forest creature myths. It seems to me, though, that Rudd has his challenges with what he isn't familiar with. Sheriff Cowan talks like an Okie from The Grapes of Wrath. The flowers on a grave "looked kind of like what's agrowin' in my wife's garden, yellow mums and such." And Trish comes off as a Valley Girl, here in the Appalachian Piedmont. When asked if there is any information on sightings of the Sooty Man in the local library, Trish answers: "At the campus library . . . in like the local anthropology collection? Well, there's like this massive chronology and photo archive." This happens, like, a lot, and is just as irritating, like, on the page, to the eye, as it is in real life, to the ear. Faulkner did not reproduce redneck speech or poor black speech; he suggested it, gave an illustrative example or two, and then backed away.

Writing first-class dialogue is truly the biggest challenge for newcomers, but Rudd has many real strengths. This smart novel has a great protagonist and it has pace. It would be greedy to want much more.

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