Contrary, West Virginia, is a small town whose economy is primarily dependent on poorly producing coal mines. The town fathers experience an unexpected windfall when a federal grant for their bus system gives them enough funding for twenty buses when, in fact, they asked for, and needed, two. Rather than admit a mistake had been made, the locals decide to use the surplus funds where they are needed – for the police department, and a public health clinic. Their reasoning seems sound. If they asked for funds for each of these other needs, a lot of money would be lost in administrative costs, if the funding was even approved.
However, things in life rarely go smoothly. The Department of Transportation in Washington decides to send a government auditor to Contrary to check up on the proper use of its funds. Shortly after his arrival, the auditor is found dead in the "bone pile" not far from the local bar whose specialty is moonshine whiskey. Locally, his death is being labeled as an accident. The Department of Transportation decides to send a second auditor, Owen Allison, to check into the funds, as well as make further inquiries about the death. Since Owen has grown up in a nearby West Virginia town, presumably the locals will be more receptive to him.
Owen quickly becomes aware of the actual situation, but the local leaders plead with him to let the money keep flowing because it is necessary to the health of the ailing town. Owen is very familiar with the town's plight, having grown up in similar circumstances and is tempted to accede to their wishes, but the death of his predecessor bothers him. He is not so sure it was an accident, especially when another death occurs which he believes is related.
Contrary Blues grabs the reader's attention from page one, not because of action or romantic suspense. What compels the reader to pay attention is the description of the town itself and its inhabitants. One can easily empathize with a community struggling to make a living, and trying to utilize their limited resources the best way they can. All of the characters are well portrayed. Each has his flaws and weaknesses, but is basically a decent human being.
The murder plot, if, indeed, murder has been committed, is not particularly complicated or profound. It takes some time for Owen to establish the actual circumstances of the auditor's death. He is diverted in his pursuit by getting involved in the lives of the people he meets. From Mayor Purvis who believes he can administer the funds more efficiently than the federal government to Mary Beth Hobbs, the town controller, with whom Owen threatens to become romantically involved, each character comes across as a real person. They all have their vices, yet one can sympathize with them.
For a first mystery, Mr. Billheimer has produced a very respectable tale. The plot is not the driving force behind the story, yet there is no shortage of action. The characters are the most wonderful part of the book. Even the town itself is described so well it seems to have a personality all its own. The reader can easily side with the mayor and his cohorts who are willing to go to great lengths, not all of them legal, to save their town.
For those readers who like to become vicarious friends with their characters, Contrary Blues will certainly fulfill their needs.