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by Samuel W. Gailey
Blue Rider Press, February 2014
304 pages
ISBN: 0399165967

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

During the course of DEEP WINTER, Samuel Gailey's debut mystery novel, it is hard for the reader to keep in mind that the major players are just about 40 years old. Mindy, the murdered on her 40th birthday, relies on her parents to provide her with a home, has a dead-end job as a waitress, and makes very immature choices, seemingly drawn to no-good no-account men. Sokowski, the local deputy in the backwater of Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, is self-indulgently violent as he takes both what is his and what is not. His shadow, Carl, though married and with children, lives for Sokowski's approbation. And Danny, accused of Mindy's murder, has a mental age of a child after suffering brain damage in a skating accident that claimed the lives of his parents during his childhood. Even those few relatively adult characters, like the 70 year old sheriff, Lester, or the state trooper, Taggert, have addictions that affect their ability to function as adults (tobacco and alcohol, respectively).

The fact that no one seems able to exert much self-control both drives the plot and impedes the characterization. While I have met many people who suffer from a lack of impulse control, I have never been as completely surrounded by that sort of character as I was while reading DEEP WINTER. This lack of dimension in the characters made it difficult to pick the book back up after setting it down, particularly during the first half, which was mainly concerned with developing Sokowski as a sociopathic killer. No doubt, Sokowski's nature comes through loud and clear, but what is not so clear is why he is the evil man he is. Perhaps, as Danny says late in the book, Sokowski is just who he is.

Early in the book, Sokowski beats his on-again, off-again girlfriend Mindy to death. To save himself, he sets into motion a plan to frame Danny, who has the poor timing to bring a gift to Mindy just as Sokowski and Carl are leaving her trailer with her lying on the floor dead inside. From that point, things spiral quickly and tragically out of control, and many additional deaths and maimings take place. DEEP WINTER becomes something of an account of a bloodbath, while at the same time Gailey wants the reader to reflect upon the nature of good and evil in an unpredictable world. Danny, who ends up as the manifestation of good opposing Sokowski's manifestation of evil, is led through the choices leading up to the final denouement by either an inner voice or a supernatural one ( readers are left to determine which on their own). Both Taggert and Lester fight their own personal demons as they search through a frozen forest to find and protect Danny. The focus on Sokowski that makes the first half of the book hard to read shifts to a focus on Danny in the latter part of the book, so that in spite of the carnage, the reader ends with a sense of hope.

In spite of its flaws, which range from stereotypical characterization to anachronistic phrasing (e.g., no backwoods woman in the 1980s would have referred to the past as "back in the day"), the book is affecting. After wanting to set it down and walk away early on due to its unremitting nastiness, I ended up with a tear in my eye thanks to the goodness that emerges as it ends.

Sharon Mensing is the Head of School of Emerald Mountain School, an independent school in the mountains of Colorado, where she lives, reads, and enjoys the outdoors.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, January 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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