When I read the publicity blurb for this book, it immediately ticked all the boxes for me. Thriller? Excellent. Set in the 1980’s? Cool. Compared to Dennis Lehane? Hand it over.
But….despite an eek-inducing prologue, what we have here is a book that is being marketed to appeal to thriller fans which IMHO does a disservice to the author. This is a beautifully written story about a broken man trying to come to terms with his past. He just happens to be a cop involved in the search for a serial killer.
Ben Wade is a former LAPD detective who moved back to his hometown of Rancho Santa Elena in an attempt to save his failing marriage. It didn’t work. He & Rachel divorced but maintain an amicable relationship for the sake of daughter Emma.
Santa Elena is a carefully planned bedroom community designed for those seeking to escape the crime & bustle of Los Angeles. It’s a safe place to raise your family & Ben’s biggest challenges are handling drunks & shop lifters. That’s about to change.
There’s been a series of murders in Orange County with a specific MO & when a woman is found dead in her home in Mission Viejo, it appears the killer has moved into the area. Body #2 confirms their fears & for the first time, Santa Elena’s shocked residents begin to seriously consider locking their doors. Ben & his colleagues are stumped. Their workload gets heavier when the body of a teenager is found in a strawberry field. Despite being an illegal immigrant, the boy was a star swimmer on the local high school team & destined for an athletic scholarship to college.
A handful of short chapters interspersed throughout the book put us inside the mind of the killer. It’s a scary place to be & as he describes scenes from his childhood, we begin to understand how he became a twisted man.
But the vast majority of the book belongs to Ben. Initially, he comes across as a sympathetic character who spends a lot of time thinking about past mistakes & mourning what he’s lost. Instead of making things better, moving back to Santa Elena seems to have had the opposite effect. The added job stress is a catalyst for his increasingly erratic behaviour but it’s not until late in the book that we realize what was always simmering below the surface. As Ben reminisces, we learn of his childhood & how the early death of his father was a turning point. These passages are poignant & atmospheric & you feel for the little boy who remains even as Ben grow into a rebellious teenager who goes on to become a cop. As the story progresses, there are definite parallels between him & the killer. Both are held hostage by their pasts & it makes you ponder how they ended up on opposite sides.
This is not a thriller & that’s no bad thing. It’s a slow burn type of book with a strong sense of time & place, written in fluid & descriptive prose. Maybe the publishers found it difficult to assign a label. For me, it’s more a character driven police procedural. Yes, there are mysteries & it does contain a killer but everything revolves around & serves to develop the MC. So if you’re looking for an edge-of-you-seat kind of read, you may be disappointed. But if you’re in the mood for rich, literary drama you’ll find much to enjoy here.