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by Judy Clemens
Poisoned Pen Press, August 2018
285 pages
ISBN: 146420988X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Casey Maldonado is on a train, headed into Idaho, when the seemingly overwhelming number of children on the train convince her she's better off getting off the train in the back of beyond than dealing with the memories triggered by all the children. Death, her constant companion, heads on down the road with her. She's used to him; he's been around since her husband and son were killed in an automobile accident.

She spends one night in the small town of Beltmore, sleeping in the park. It doesn't go well; she is attacked by three drunks. They have picked the wrong woman and she beats the crap out of them before finding refuge in a small church. The pastor convinces Casey to report the three men; they are "connected" and nobody else has ever pressed charges. After doing this, Casey keeps moving north. She winds up in Armstrong, a seemingly normal small rural town. Readers will know how unlikely it is that Armstrong is as normal as it appears.

Casey gets a job working for Vern, who runs the local general store. His wife Dottie is dying. Vern provides vital services, and some non-vital luxuries, for the town; most people treat him well. Dottie - not so much. Nobody in town has a good word to say about her; nobody will go into detail about why this is. While Casey is in Armstrong, the animus against Dottie escalates. This motivates Casey to look into Vern and Dottie's past. She unearths at least one mystery, a missing persons case, and a lot of anger. Some of the anger is decades old. Some is recent - the three guys from Beltmore are looking for her and they are definitely not happy.

Clemens has a good sense of the currents that often run beneath the placid surface waters of a small community, and of how dangerous they can be. Old hurts may linger long beyond reason, and fester where nobody can see. Casey, being new in town, looks into closets that the locals have long since learned to ignore, either out of kindness or unwillingness to deal with what's inside. As one might imagine, the locals don't like Casey's prying. When Dottie dies, the closet doors start to pop open, with very unpleasant results. Clemens somehow manages to walk that fine line between dark humor and really uncomfortable not-so-funny memes about death and Death. Her companion Death can be quite subtle when making his (why is Death invariably male?) points. He can also be brutally confrontational when he feels it is important for Casey to learn a valuable life lesson. This is the fifth in the Grim Reaper series; Casey has made some definite progress since the deaths of her family. There is still work to be done; Death will be with Casey for a while. Readers will benefit from this pairing, both in terms of good stories and important life issues. Bonus!

§ I have been reading and reviewing mystery fiction for over a quarter of a century and read broadly within just about all genres and sub-genres. I have been a preliminary judge for the Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Press Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Contest for at least 25 years. I live in Northern lower Michigan with my spousal unit, one large cat, and 2 fairly small dogs.

Reviewed by PJ Coldren, July 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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