I kept coming across this title in people’s lists of the best 2017 mystery/thriller books, so I decided to pick it up. I certainly enjoyed it but don’t agree with many of the reviews which describe it as a masterpiece of the genre.
After a 20-year absence, Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra, his rural hometown, for a friend’s funeral. That friend, Luke Hadler, apparently killed his wife and son and then himself. Luke’s father asks Aaron to investigate to determine if Luke murdered his family. Aaron is reluctant to stay because his presence is not welcomed by most of the town’s inhabitants; he and his father were basically forced out of town after Ellie Deacon, one of Aaron and Luke’s friends, had been found dead two decades earlier. Nonetheless, he teams up with Raco, the town’s policeman, and the two gradually uncover problems with the murder-suicide theory.
There are many questions for which the reader seeks answers. Why was Aaron suspected of being connected to Ellie’s death? Why did Luke and Aaron lie about their whereabouts when Ellie disappeared? Is there a connection between Luke’s death and that of Ellie? Of course, it is not just Aaron who has secrets; several secrets are gradually uncovered as Aaron and Raco investigate.
A strong element in the book is atmosphere. The town has been experiencing a drought for two years and people are feeling desperate. It is not just the landscape that can be described as a tinder box; emotions can also be easily kindled. The murders increase the tension, and Aaron’s unwelcome arrival does nothing to relieve it.
One of my issues with the book is characterization. Aaron is a federal agent who investigates financial crimes, yet he misinterprets a major clue and jumps to a conclusion, especially after he had a telling conversation with an old friend? By missing the obvious and focusing on a minor action, an errant glance, he again leads the case in the wrong direction. Surely I can’t have been the only reader to see the investigation veering off course! There are a couple of bad guys in the book and they are totally bad; such stereotyping weakens the novel.
There are some techniques which grated. Cryptic notes linked to Aaron are used once too often. Some of the clues are just too obvious; when a certain topic of conversation comes up more than once and with more than one person, an astute reader will be on high alert. Again, I cannot have been the only reader to know the motive early on? Then Aaron’s discovery of a key item at the end seems just too convenient. One of Raco’s first questions to Aaron is about a hiding place, but he isn’t reminded of another hiding place that is significant for a couple of reasons? The italicized flashbacks inserted throughout are useful because they verify what Aaron learns, but the last, very lengthy one seems like a too-easy way to bring things to a close.
The book is fairly fast-paced and does keep the reader’s interest. To the author’s credit, some relevant information is divulged in a very natural manner; unfortunately, other clues are not very subtle. Perhaps my problem is that I was expecting too much after all the hype about this debut novel.