“The crafter should sever the limb from a living tree with their bare hands, alone. No tools. No onlookers. No help from anyone else. Preferably, the crafter will have grown with the tree, watered its roots, climbed its branches, danced in its shade, sung with the birds it housed. The deeper the crafter’s connection to the tree, the more powerful the weapon.“
So begins Jeremy Hepler’s Cricket Hunters, an intriguing amalgam of a coming-of-age mystery and modern thriller, which melds the two narrative threads in a seamless finish.
The cricket hunters themselves are a group of five teenagers: Celia (known as Cel), Parker, Natalie, Omar and Abby. The name of their gang is attributed to their rather vicious habit of killing noisy crickets with sharpened sticks, an act which Celia’s grandmother Yesenia pays them to do. Yesenia is also revealed to be a witch, or ‘bruja’ and her rituals and Latin American heritage feature strongly throughout the book. Through clever flashback sequences, we are made privy to all the teens emotions, excitements and worries, and watch as various conflicting sexual feelings bloom between the group. The coming-of-age portion is absolutely essential to the overall plot, and Hepler manages to spin both plates with ease.
However, as all good summers must come to an end, so, apparently must all teenage love triangles, and it is Abby’s disappearance (presumed murdered) in 1998 around which the backstory circles. Fifteen years later, in 2013, Parker also goes missing, and while Abby’s case has grown cold over the years and no evidence was found to charge anyone, new clues begin to emerge which appear to link both hers and Parker’s fates, twisting the two time periods and mysteries together.
The story is told mostly from Cel’s perspective, and starts with her disclosing her unhappiness at the state of her relationship with Parker. Cel has been with Parker for fourteen years and married for six of those, although it has not always been a happy marriage. A suspected affair and multiple miscarriages — despite Cel’s efforts to be a “viable vessel” — have put a considerable strain on the two. When Parker disappears after a heated argument, Cel assumes he is with his school-teacher lover, but a much different and potentially deadly situation is soon revealed.
Throughout the book, Hepler utilises Cel’s heritage and connections with witchcraft in an intelligent and engaging way which never feels forced or contrite — although some of the rituals are quite bloody and describe the use of animal torture and sacrifice. We never know for sure if the spells actually work, or even if what Yesenia believes is happening is really true, but that’s okay, this adds to the tension and charged emotions, as well as providing clues about Cel’s real character. Cel is a strong woman who clearly has no problems with getting her hands dirty if needed, and I did rather wonder at her and Parker’s pairing.
The other key characters; Omar, Natalie, and Jeff (the latter being Abby’s younger brother) don’t have nearly as much page-time as the others, but are still integral to the story arc. The shadows of each character’s pasts loom large over their present and futures and the small-town, close-minded mindset of those around them magnify the tensions within the community, and the personal turmoils they all face. Even a minor cricket infestation in her bathroom serves to remind Cel that you cannot always escape your history nor change the person you really are.
Cricket Hunters is a fun and engaging read, skilfully plotted and written in a clear and accessible style which means the time-jumps and character’s motivations are complex enough to provide mystery but still remain easy to follow. Hepler is incredibly skilled at using both foreshadowing and misdirection to throw you off the scent, and the ending is surprising, clever and emotionally satisfying with the events of the two different time-frames deftly teased together to ensure all loose ends are tied up.
Jeremy Hepler is the Bram Stoker-nominated author of CRICKET HUNTERS, THE BOULEVARD MONSTER, and numerous short stories and nonfiction articles. He received the Texas Panhandle Professional Writer’s Short Story Award in 2014, and his debut novel was a Bram Stoker Award finalist in the Superior Achievement in a First Novel category in 2017. He lives in central Texas with his wife and son and is currently working on his next novel.