Review of A Stranger Here Below

Earlier this fall, author Charles Fergus offered to send me a copy of his newest book, A Stranger Here Below, which is set in the Jacksonian period. There’s not a lot of fiction that focuses on this period, so I agreed to read the book and write a short review about it here.

A Stranger Here Below is a standard mystery novel set in the early decades of the United States, primarily 1835. The main character is Gideon Stoltz, a Pennsylvania sheriff who attempts to understand why his friend, Judge Hiram Biddle, took his own life. What unspools is a decades-old mystery that affects several members of the Colerain County community of Adamant. The characters are generally well-developed, and the pacing of the plot is brisk. I’m interested to see how Fergus is able to continue the characters in future books in the series.

As a historian, I was disappointed that Fergus didn’t make more connections to the broader national perspective of the period. The only real mentions of national events were brief references to Andrew Jackson, Samuel Colt, and runaway slaves. Given the geographic isolation of Adamant, it’s not surprising that there isn’t more discussion of what was happening in the mid-1830s. It is a rural community at a significant distance from larger Pennsylvania cities, and thus not exactly a conducive place for discussion of Martin Van Buren’s attempt to succeed Andrew Jackson, Richard M. Johnson’s scandalous family relations, the Bank War, or the violent social disruptions of 1835.

My own personal disappointment in the lack of national historical context likely won’t deter other readers who enjoy historical fiction. It also won’t stop me from reading future entries in the series.

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