Thriller Review

In The Forest of Harm 
By Sallie Bissell 
Bantam Books, 2001
ISBN: 055-280-1287 

Without a doubt, Sallie Bissellís first novel is a page-turner of the first degree. Beginning with a tight, tense flashback to a scene at Little Jump Off Store deep in the Nantahala National Forest in the spring of 1988, when young Mary Crow comes home to find her mother raped and murdered, In the Forest of Harm explores the mental and physical torture felt by Mary twelve
years later. 

Matured to become a tough assistant district attorney with enough weight in her words to send rapists and killers off to the penitentiary for life -- and sometimes to their deaths, Mary Crow is a product of her Cherokee ancestry and her upbringing by a strict but wealthy grandmother in Atlanta. 

Novelist Bissell puts the reader in the middle of action from the first words that are uttered by a rich young playboy who has just been found guilty of rape and murder as he lurches toward Mary Crow. In the aftermath of the trial, Mary and her two closest friends -- tall and blonde Alexandra McCrimmon and short and dark Joan Marchetti, both also lawyers -- take off, at
Maryís urging, for a weekend campout and hiking trip into the mountainous forest where Mary had lived until her mother was killed. 

Shortly, through the use of cinematic techniques of jumping from scene to scene, the reader discovers that the defendant who Mary prosecutes and convicts has an older brother who vows revenge. Soon after that, we discover Henry Brank, an evil creature who stalks the forest with super strength while hateful spirits float through his head. Ms. Bissellís bad guys are not simply bad; they are menacing through and through. 

The novelist provides Brank with enough psychological motivation for his madness, yet he does not have the human strengths of a Hannibal character from The Silence of Lambs.  As he stalks through the woods, following the young women, we feel his menacing shadow but also wonder how they cannot smell his stench before finding him crouching over them. 

Add to this mix the handsome young Jonathan Walkingstick with whom Mary Crow was having a youthful affair while her mother was being raped and murdered. Seeing her reappear at the store he now tends, Jonathan still feels an attraction, which is questionably mutual, yet unsaid. 
Perhaps the most tragic creation in Forest of Harm is young Billy Swimmer, a slender Cherokee man with a wife and child and penchant for gambling and losing. We first encounter him standing alongside a road in the forest with a placard reading: Have Your Picture Taken With A Real Life Cherokee, wearing an eagle-feathered headdress. With a chance to make
enough money to buy his fiddle out of hock and have some cash left over, Billy Swimmer finds himself in the middle of a tragedy from which he cannot escape. 

As the various characters zigzag their way deeper and deeper into the mysterious forest which the writer describes with expert finesse, it is only a matter of pages before they collide like missiles guided by a force greater than themselves. The climatic scenes unfold with grace and control, each growing more and more dramatic, timed to coincide with the heartbeat of
the reader. The authorís suspense hangs in the air like the smoky clouds that seep from the earth of the mountains. It is sustained from page to page from beginning until the last word. 

I am eager to read Ms. Bissellís next novel which will continue the saga of Mary Crow, one of the finest series heroes Iíve encountered in some time. 

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

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