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THE SUSPECT by Fiona Barton: Book Review

Some mysteries start slowly, building up the suspense in a gradual way, while others make your nerves stand on end right from the beginning.  The Suspect definitely falls into the second category.

Fiona Barton’s third novel in this London-based series features Post reporter Kate Waters and police inspector detective Bob Sparkes.  The book opens with a phone call from Jake, Kate’s son, who has been traveling in Thailand and whom she hasn’t heard from in seven months.  “Sorry I missed your birthday,” he says, before the call disconnects or he hangs up, Kate can’t be sure which.

Across London, Lesley and Mal O’Connor have been waiting for a call as well.  Their daughter Alexandra been traveling with a friend, but despite her promise to call or text every day it’s been a week since her parents have heard from her.  Now they’ve made the decision to call the police and declare Alex missing.

The Suspect is told in several voices–Kate’s, Bob’s, Lesley’s, and Alex’s. We hear from Alex, the third voice, when her plane touches down in Bangkok, and immediately things begin to go wrong for her and her traveling mate, Rosie.  Rosie had drunk too much on the flight, despite Alex’s comment that she’d become dehydrated, and the heat in the city doesn’t help.  Things get worse when they can’t find their hostel and end up at the Paradise Bar and Guesthouse, which is about as far from paradise as it is possible to get.

Alex was supposed to go to Thailand with her best friend Mags, but at the last minute Mags admitted that she didn’t have the money to go.  Rather than go alone, Alex decides to go with Rosie, another classmate, but one whom she barely knows.  And the little she does know about Rosie is telling her that this may not be a wise decision.  But now that the girls have made it to Thailand, it’s too late; besides, Alex doesn’t want to admit to her parents and her friends back home that the dream trip is turning into anything but.

In addition to worries about their out-of-touch children, there are other concerns in the lives of all the characters.  Kate is fearful of losing her position in the ever-shrinking newsroom at the Post; Rosie’s parents are divorced, and her mother’s concern about Rosie doesn’t seem to resonate with her ex-husband, making the situation even more painful for her; Bob’s beloved wife Ellen is dying of cancer.  This makes the novel all-the-more poignant, as it reflects real life, where many problems occur simultaneously, and the characters have to deal with them as well as with the central mystery.

I have praised Ms. Barton’s previous novels in this series, The Widow and The Child, on this blog; and The Suspect is equal to those outstanding mysteries.

You can read more about Fiona Barton at this website.

DISGRACED by Gwen Florio: Book Review

Vacation?  Who wants a vacation?  That’s the thinking of Lola Wicks, a newspaper reporter in Magpie, Montana.  Due to a budget cutback she’s been forced to take a three-week unpaid furlough, and she reluctantly heads to Yellowstone with her five-year-old daughter Margaret to spend part of that time trying to relax and forget about covering stories.  Then a favor for a friend and a deadly shooting wreck Lola’s plans.

Lola’s colleague at the paper, Jan Carpenter, asks Lola to make a detour and check on her cousin Pal Jones, a soldier recently returned to Thirty, Wyoming, from Afghanistan.  Jan is worried because her cousin has stopped responding to emails and phone calls.  Jan can’t leave Magpie, and she feels that Lola, who had been in Afghanistan several years earlier reporting on the war, will be able to connect with Pal (short for Palomino) and find out what’s going on.  Lola agrees reluctantly, but she’s determined to make her visit as brief as possible.

What Lola finds when she gets to Thirty is a tall, gaunt, almost wordless woman who has no interest in telling Lola anything at all, certainly nothing about her war experiences.  Together, along with Margaret, they go to the Casper airport to welcome another returning vet home.  But as Cody Dillon steps onto the tarmac, he shouts out, “It’s alive,” and fatally shoots himself in front of nearly all the people of the town.

The always-searching reporter, Lola can’t help looking for the reason that the young man killed himself and for the issues that are besetting these veterans.  What she finds are several different stories about what happened to the group, including Pal, the only woman, who enlisted in the Army the day after their high school graduation.  Pal’s closest friend, a Native American named Mike St. Clair, was killed in Afghanistan, two other members of the group nearly stomped a third one to death, and now a fourth has committed suicide.

And yet that doesn’t explain Pal’s withdrawal from the world, not to mention the ever-increasing number of cuts on her left arm.  Why is she self-harming?  And did Lola actually see a smile on Pal’s face when Cody shot himself, or did she simply imagine it?

Gwen Florio’s novel looks deeply into small-town secrets, barely-concealed racism, and the disparate stories surrounding Mike St. Clair’s death.  In the midst of all this is Lola’s reluctance to accept the marriage proposal of Charlie, Margaret’s father and Lola’s partner of six years.  Why can’t things stay just as they are, she wonders.  But Charlie wants the permanence of marriage, and he’s getting tired of waiting for her answer.

Disgraced is a powerful novel, with headlines that are totally relevant today.  You may think that Lola’s desire to get a story borders on obsession, but she’s convinced that only the truth will free Pal from her demons and explain the deaths that followed the Thirty veterans on their tour of duty and beyond.

You can read more about Gwen Florio at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.