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Review: The Midnight Cool, by Lydia Peelle
Harper, 2017. 359 pp. $27

Summer 1916, Richfield, Tennessee. Billy Monday and Charles McLaughlin, grifters who could smooth-talk just about anyone into buying a bridge, have rolled into town, normally a prelude to a quick deal and an even quicker getaway. But Leland Hatcher, the wealthiest man in Richfield–note the town’s (fictional) name–has advertised a beautiful black mare, The Midnight Cool, for sale. Charles, who knows horseflesh a little, has never seen so captivating an animal, and though he may be a vagabond, he decides he’ll have that horse. Billy, who knows people as well as horseflesh, is skeptical (and, by the way, note his name too, an ironic twist on Billy Sunday, a famous evangelist). What’s more, Hatcher’s daughter, Catherine, whom Charles meets by chance, tells him the horse isn’t worth his money.

But Charles is after more than the horse, something he realizes only when he tries to buy it. He wants to be welcome in homes like Hatcher’s, to ride in a car like his Pierce Arrow, and to be well thought of, as he supposes Hatcher is. But most of all, Charles wants Catherine, as captivating a young woman as he’s ever seen, though he assumes he’s not good enough for her. Wouldn’t you know, once Charles has sunk all the money Billy and he possess into The Midnight Cool, the horse throws and tramples Billy and must be destroyed. Naturally, the pair have to stick around in Richfield, so that Billy can heal and Charles can earn some money. Of course, that also gives him time to woo Catherine.

To his amazement, he succeeds more than he has any right to expect. Not only does Catherine respond, recognizing her own dreams of escaping Richfield in her new beau’s apparent freedom, he makes more money than he’s ever had before, and it’s even honest work. The British Army, fighting the First World War in French mud, has been buying American mules by the shipload. Charles scouts them out for a military contractor, and suddenly, the town worthies, including Leland Hatcher, begin to think of him as an up-and-coming young man involved in a righteous cause.

Unsung hero: a mule on the Western Front (courtesy warmule.org, via the National Library of Scotland)

But, as Billy, an Irish immigrant who’s fallen into many troughs on the waves of life, observes:

Caveat emptor, that was the first rule. The second was to never lie. Twist the truth, yes, hide it, decorate it, do what you would with it, of course, but you never looked a man in the face and opened your mouth and spoke an outright lie. You never knew when you might come through a town again, and you wanted to maintain a reputation.

Caveat emptor, indeed. Just as Charles has bought a murderous horse from an unscrupulous man (Hatcher drugged the horse so that she would seem docile), his other desires have blinded him too. He sees only the sympathy and attraction between Catherine and himself, not their differences; for starters, she’s a rebellious individualist, while he wants to fit in and be respectable. The mismatch between desire and personality repeats with all the other characters, save Billy.

Where many, if not most, novelists would focus on how people overcome obstacles to get what they want, Peelle’s more interested in how it hurts them once they have it. Hatcher does much worse than drugging horses, and he gets away with everything because he’s rich, but he’s also miserable. Peelle’s fascinated with power, which nobody uses well in this novel, and which always burns them. The reason that Billy lies outside this realm is that he wants what most people would consider little or nothing–only to see and appreciate life in its magnitude. Nobody can give him or deny him that, so he’s safe now, though of course, it wasn’t always so.

The Midnight Cool is a fine novel indeed, but reader, beware. As with Billy’s statement about telling lies and hiding truth, Peelle never lies outright, but she does hide things, sometimes in plain sight. I hate prologues, but I’ll make an exception here, because this one tells you what you need to know. Take it at face value, and if you keep going, you’ll be treated to a riveting, potent tale with characters whose inner lives are right out there. The Midnight Cool is a literary page-turner, what reverse snobs say is impossible, but trust me, Peelle’s an excellent storyteller, and her prose can be electric.

She does rely on one or two coincidences that might be predictable or predictably ironic or both, and she also shoves bits and pieces in odd places, so that you can learn how Billy and Charles met up and what keeps them together. But hell, nobody’s perfect. What I find more annoying are the cutesy mannerisms, such as the absence of quotation marks or the consistent use of alright instead of all right, which, though technically correct, strikes me as showing off.

All the same, Peelle has written something to brag about.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.