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by Kristen Lepionka
Minotaur, June 2017
336 pages
ISBN: 1250120519

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It's always exciting to read a debut novel that's polished, gripping, and original while imbued with a sophisticated grasp of the traditions of the genre. Kristen Lepionka just pulled that off with THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK. The setup is classic and, better yet, builds on the feminist turn in the hardboiled PI story pioneered by Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky, among the last practitioners of their brave new wave. "Matt says you find things. For a living," is the opening line, and the way Roxane Weary responds to her potential client may give the seasoned reader the same thrill as when meeting Kinsey Millhone or V. I. Warshowski for the first time. But there's nothing old-fashioned or stale about this story. It's fresh and furiously engrossing. And it's as feminist as the work of the foremothers, though there aren't any soapboxes to trip over; that furniture's become permanent and solid.

Roxane ("one n") Weary is going through a rough time since her cop father died on the job. It's not that she misses him, it's that their troubled relationship got interrupted before she had a chance to work out why he was such a total jerk. Her bereaved mother is no help, and her dueling brothers (one who is militantly sober and eager to drag his siblings up the twelve steps, the other a bartender) aren't exactly helping. But even though she thinks it's unlikely she'll find what her client wants, her bank account insists she give it a try.

The client is in a hurry. Her brother's execution date is soon, and she just caught sight of the woman he dated, the child of the two murder victims he supposedly killed the same day that the girlfriend vanished without a trace, presumed murdered. Roxane has a forensic artist friend draw an age progression portrait to show around, but it's pretty much a bust until a local police chief starts acting hostile and Roxane finds a possible connection to another murder. Maybe her client's brother is innocent after all. Or maybe she's grasping at straws.

The buildup as she pursues clues and revises her theories is relentlessly involving just as her complicated relationships fill even incidental characters with life. When a girl who looks too much like the others goes missing, Roxane is fulling invested in finding her but not so occupied that she doesn't recognize the special grief that the girl's best friend is going through, able to recognize and help the kid understand and validate the love she feels that she can't tell anyone about.

Roxane is great company, but it gets harder and harder to savor her rueful, snarky, often funny observations as the tension ratchets up because the pages keep turning themselves faster and faster. Readers had better plan on staying up late to get to that last place Roxane looks. Just take a deep breath after you close the book and write down the name: Kristen Lepionka. You'll be looking for the next one.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, July 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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