In "A Sense of Loss," a moving and thoughtful novel by J P Jones, Detective Mike Cutler tells us about his search for a murderer but what stays long after we finish the story is the depth of his feeling for his hometown Bartonsburg, West Virginia. This once prosperous little city is one of the hundreds of local communities around the country that have experienced great loss over the past fifty years. The murder victim is a doctor from India, relatively new to Bartonsburg. Cutler’s search leads him through the back-reaches of the mountain town he knows so well and leads him down paths of reflection on what has happened to it he never expected to explore - racism, drugs, union busting, greed, poverty and ignorance, in-bred clannishness and hunger for urban sophistication and wealth. Bartonsburg comes to life with a disturbing yet satisfying intensity. We meet a rich set of characters who deftly portray the whole town and region, from unemployed drug-taking youths to a steel mill owner, a wealthy lawyer, and a playboy banker dying of cancer. The whole town comes to life in the telling and a cold case gets uncovered as well. Behind the troubles of the dead doctor lies a long history of troubles in Bartonsburg.
The pleasure of this superb novel, then, is how it gives us a detective story, a crime to be solved, but in terms that are far beyond the boxes we usually associate with that essential plot. Essential in the sense not of formula fiction but the human story. Murder cuts into every tie binding any town together. We see not just how the murder has cut into the quick of their lives but how an unsolved cold case still holds open old wounds for everyone. A whole age of promise, possibility and expectation has gone.