What do you do when a stranger shows up in your quaint little Canadian town to accuse your ancestors of a horrific act? What do you do when he holds you and your fellow citizens responsible for a murder that took place long before you were born? More importantly, what do you do when you begin to doubt the official history, and suspect that there may just be something to his demands for vengeance?
Such is the basic premise of Killing Down the Roman Line, a taut thriller about the prejudices, hatreds, and secrets of small town life, as told by Tim McGregor. Going into this already well versed with the tale of the Donnellys that inspire it, I was prepared to dismiss the book as a simple morality tale, and was dreading the inevitable change-of-heart that would expose the misunderstanding and redeem all involved. Much to my delight, that is most definitely not the tale that McGregor has set out to tell. This is a story of revenge, of the brutal pursuit of justice, with absolutely no mercy for those who stand in the way.
Will Corrigan is as rich, as arrogant, as self-righteous, and as pompous as they come. You can't help but sympathize with his desire for revenge, but you can certainly argue with his methods. He's a challenging character to put at the forefront of a story, but he has such a commanding presence that it works. Of course, it helps that he has absolutely not doubt as to the guilt of the townfolk, giving a false (perhaps) façade of legitimacy to his work.
As for the townspeople, they reminded me of the kind of characters you'd find in an old Stephen King short story, or perhaps in an episode of the Twilight Zone. They're odd, eccentric, and close-minded to a fault, but they're also vulnerable. As the story progresses, you almost begin to feel sorry for their predicament, but you can't get past their conspiratorial nature, nor their refusal to make any admission of guilt. These are people for whom secrets are to be kept, appearances maintained, and history (such as it is) preserved - at all costs.
Caught between the two is Jim Hawkshaw, a struggling farmer doomed as much by his own curiosity as his farm's proximity to that of the land Corrigan has come to claim as his own. Of course, the fact that he's long wanted that same land for his own casts some doubt upon his motives, but he really does end up being stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. As you might expect, things become personal, and in a way that's not good for anybody involved.
I really didn't expect the tale to come full-circle as it did, but I appreciated the literary irony involved. It's not a happy ending, but it's a fitting one . . . and one that lingers long after you've turned the last page. No matter whose story you believe, or whose side you chose to take, you can't help but come away from the story feeling a little dirty.