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THE BITTER PAST by Bruce Borgos: Book Review

Depending on how one views it, the High Desert is either an area of great beauty or a desolate landscape. Its very small population is spread over a very large area, and it definitely takes a certain type of mindset to live there.

Porter Beck is the sheriff of Lincoln County, Nevada, which is part of the High Desert, as was his father before him.  Murders there are rare, but now he is faced with a particularly heinous one.  The murdered man was Ralph Atterbury, a retired FBI agent, and he was brutally tortured, apparently for hours, before his death.

Beck, as everyone calls him, served in an Intelligence unit in the Army.  Now he thinks, “It’s a level of torture I’ve never witnessed, and that includes what I’ve seen the Taliban do.”  He has one of his deputies call the FBI office in Las Vegas to inform them of the crime and continues his search of Atterbury’s home, one thing standing out from all the blood and butchery.  It’s a small box containing Thallium salts, which Beck recognizes from a past experience.  Very, very poisonous, odorless, and tasteless.

The next day FBI Agent Sana Locke enters Beck’s office.  Together they return to the scene of the crime and afterward to the Las Vegas field office to view Atterbury’s corpse.

Then The Bitter Past goes back to 1955, when Las Vegas was a newly emerging vacation spot and fears of the Cold War were everywhere.   A young man called Freddie Meyer gets an interim job as a dealer in one of the city’s casinos, and there he meets Katherine Ellison.  The two click immediately, and after a few dates she takes him home to meet her father, a physicist working on a secret weapon who has ultra-high security clearance.

The two men hit it off, partly due to Freddie’s interest in and knowledge of physics, and Dr. Ellison is able to get Freddie a job as a security guard at the newly named Nevada Testing Site.  Although he passed the security clearance for this position, the reader knows there’s something “off” about Freddie.

Why is he so determined to learn all he can about his fellow guards?  Why does he downplay his ability with firearms?  And, given his relatively low status as a security guard, why is he aiming to obtain as much information as he can about the science of atomic testing?

Four weeks into his new job Freddie has a few days off and leaves the testing site, returning to his Las Vegas apartment.  Picking up his mail, he sees a small package from his Aunt Sally.  When he opens it, inside is the camera he is expecting.  It will permit Freddie, also known as Lieutenant Georgiy Dudko of the Committee for State Security (KGB), to take photos without being observed, inside the United States’ most secret facility.

Bruce Borgos has written a mystery with multiple layers.  Its protagonist, Porter Beck, is charming, funny, and a lawman with incredible credentials, and the book’s other characters bring their own strengths and personalities to the novel.  The Bitter Past is an outstanding debut, and I hope to see much more of Beck and his colleagues in the future.

You can read more about the author at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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