Sundown at Sunrise by Marty Seifert
Published in 2016
Genre: True crime, historical fiction
“Henry Petrie was a proper Episcopalian who was prominent and well known in western Redwood County, a large rural county in southwestern Minnesota.”
Intimate and accurate details are absolutely integral to creating realism within fiction; Sundown at Sunrise by Marty Seifert, however, places all of these details in all the wrong places. The novel tells the fictionalized account of a real ax murder in 1917 rural Minnesota, but what promises to be a thrilling story of love and murder serves better as an instruction manual for early 20th century mechanisms and courting practices.
Some people like to skip the introductions or prefaces of novels since they may give away details about the story that follows; the preface of Sundown at Sunrise is necessary for understanding the context of the story, but may well undo the effectiveness of the narrative in its sincerity. After growing up in southern Minnesota and hearing stories about an infamous ax murder that happened nearby, Seifert decided to write his own version of the events that culminated in a brutal murder and suicide.
The book begins in Redwood County, MN in the early 1900s. We are introduced to the Petrie family: Henry, a farmer who sold his land for a considerable amount of money, and his wife Clara. The couple have two children, Claude and his beautiful older sister Maud, who are good, church-going Episcopalians. When Maud is in her twenties, she meets the handsome William Kleeman, who is instantly enamored with the young beauty and intends to win her heart.
This introduction is followed by over 100 pages of unnecessary information that could be cut from the story and nothing would be lost. William and Maud date, marry, have children, and take in a pretty, young school teacher. She has an affair with William and when he finds out she is pregnant, he decides to send her off so he can kill himself and his family; if you see the logic in this, I welcome you to show it to me. That is the gist of the story and William’s sudden decision that the most logical thing to do is end the lives of his family comes out of nowhere. It is difficult to care about the characters in Sundown at Sunrise because they are flat and stereotypical; not a single one develops or overcomes conflict because there aren’t any until the murder near the end of the book.
The character who should shape events in the story, William, is something of a conundrum. Apparently William is evil deep down, but the only evidence we have is that some animals don’t like him (but some do), especially on the farm where he eventually kills his family. There are no early hints of any malice except that he won’t go to church and apparently is uneasy around crosses and the Bible. Otherwise, people are just skeptical of his motives because he is a stranger. There is simply too much inconsistency for his malice to be believable; rather than slowly growing over the course of the story, it is sudden and makes his action at the end all the more jarring.
There are some attempts at foreshadowing in the novel, but they fall flat since we know the ending after reading the preface. Seifert tries to allude to William’s internal evil through the mention of garter snakes. The first of these is when William’s friend, Johnny, falls from a shed they are painting, but Johnny is fine so there is no real reason for this scene except to introduce garter snakes as a symbol. The foreshadowing doesn’t work because it makes itself too obvious by mentioning a “familiar” garter snake in later chapters which is the literary equivalent to someone putting too much emphasis in a wink.
Religious imagery is found throughout the book but there is a random passage after the murder and suicide about William’s soul returning to hell. Following the murder is an entire chapter of the grandfathers going through the house to look at the bodies individually. We just read about the murder, so why rehash the details? To make it more grizzly? It is too unseemly and continues into the next chapter where William’s father apparently believes he must show the rest of the family the bodies of William and his dead son.
Aside from the problems with plot, the very makeup of the novel is problematic. Typographical errors distract from the flow of the story and it is fraught with summary and exposition. There is too much telling rather than showing and the dialogue is stilted between characters that have accents which are dropped and picked back up periodically. The novel is well researched and very detail oriented with machinery of the time; though this technical information is accurate and impressive, the premise of the book is about an ax murder not machinery from the early 1900s. It deals with too many details that aren’t central to the story which hampers the reader’s ability to identify or care about the characters.
Sundown at Sunrise is not a horrible book and there are some highlights, but much of it seems unnecessary and it falls short too often to reach its full potential. The disclaimer at the beginning begs the question, “Since most of this is made up except for the ending, why isn’t it done better?” This is a book that doesn’t know what it wants to be; it is part period piece, instruction manual, stereotypical love story, and true crime novel, though it lacks dedication to any one area. It is a genuine attempt by an author to tell a story they have put passion and love into; unfortunately, trying isn’t always enough.
More information on the author and book can be found at http://www.sundownatsunrise.com/
Verdict: 2 poorly explained motives for murder out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of historical fiction based in rural Minnesota, those interested in learning how the machinery of the early 20th century worked in detail, fans of August Schell’s brewery, people who like the word “inordinate,” and people from Redwood County, MN.
Not recommended for: Those not interested in learning how the machinery of the early 20th century worked in detail, fans of fast paced thrillers, or people who mind when a story has pacing issues.