Written by John Hart, narrated by Scott Shepherd — You’d never guess this crime thriller is award-winning author John Hart’s first novel with a female protagonist. He writes from her point of view compellingly and expertly slips himself into her shoes where gender perspective makes a difference – as a detective partner, as a daughter, and as unofficial guardian to two troubled teens.
Elizabeth Black is a detective in a mid-sized North Carolina city who over 13 years has proved herself a good cop, though the men around her seem anxious to dismiss all that as soon as she encounters difficulties. And she does encounter them by the bushel.
When a radio call leads her to an abandoned house where a missing 18-year-old girl, Channing Shore, might be hidden away, Elizabeth goes in alone. A few hours later, Elizabeth and Channing walk out. In the basement are the bodies of Brendan and Titus Monroe, brothers aged 34 and 31, with 18 bullet wounds that suggest they have been painfully tortured. Bullets lodged in the floor lead to speculation the men were shot after they were down.
There’s no question Channing was raped and tortured for 40 hours and that Elizabeth saved her. But the case has drawn the attention of the North Carolina attorney general, who sends state police investigators to determine whether the brothers’ death involved police brutality. A newspaper headline says it all: “Hero Cop or Angel of Death?” In exploring this theme, Hart reflects the attention given several recent real-life episodes in the United States, though in this story, he comes down on the side of the women.
As a rookie, Elizabeth looked up to and perhaps even loved a detective named Adrian Wall. Wall was a detective’s detective whom other cops and the media admired. But he got mixed up with the wife of a confidential informant, and when her body was found draped over the altar of Elizabeth’s father’s church, evidence pointed to him as the killer.
Wall was convicted and has spent the last dozen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. A police officer in prison is in a dangerous spot, and he has the scars to prove it. Many of these did not come from his fellow-prisoners but from the guards and the warden, deadly desperate for him to reveal a secret they believe his former cellmate must have told him. Wall has completed his sentence and is released from prison just as the pressure on Elizabeth Black is mounting. He’s no sooner out than a second woman’s body is found on the same church altar. Then a third.
From that point on, the two stories – Elizabeth’s quest to clear her reputation and be reinstated on the force and her desire to prove Adrian Wall’s innocence of the women’s murders are intertwined. Whom she can trust among the police, Channing’s family, her mother and semi-estranged father, and others is ever-shifting, and mostly she must operate outside official channels and without the protection of her badge. One consistent ally is retired lawyer Faircloth ‘Crybaby’ Jones, nearly 90, who unsuccessfully defended Wall during his trial and has regretted that failure ever since. Crybaby is a wonderful character who combines the courtliness of the Old South with a fox’s wily instincts.
In an interview included with the audiobook, author Hart reveals that he’d basically written the book – some 300 pages – before discovering that the protagonist was not whom he had chosen. He found that the center of the book, its heart, was Elizabeth. Changing the point of view of a novel involves a lot more than changing ‘he’ to ‘she’. That was a decision with time-gobbling consequences that has really paid off for readers, or listeners.
Actor Scott Shepherd does a brilliant job narrating this novel with its range of characters. Often a female narrator is selected for a book with a female protagonist, but his rendering of Elizabeth is perfect. She’s female, but not in any clichéd way. The same goes for Channing and the several other women. He has just the right amount of easygoing South in his voice and avoids caricature. I found it easy to forget one talent was producing all these different people! Just terrific.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 5 Stars