The Pine Barrens Stratagem by Ken Harris

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The Pine Barrens Stratagem by Ken Harris front cover

In Ken Harris’s new thriller, witty and profane private investigator Steve Rockfish tackles a series of long-hidden crimes that powerful forces are determined should stay under wraps.

The prologue is a bit over-long, but provides a chilling history lesson. In the early 1940s, the young men of rural southern New Jersey were going to war and saying goodbye to their girlfriends in the usual way, with the usual consequences. When the disgraced girls and their babies began disappearing, the bare-bones police forces left behind weren’t keen investigators. Still, one local officer, Edward McGee, persisted, and when he disappeared too, any questions stopped…

Once Harris fast forwards to 2020, the story takes off and never slows. An unlikely crusader for justice – a Los Angeles-based true crime podcaster named Angel Davenport – hears tantalising threads of this New Jersey story and is convinced it could be his ticket to a lucrative, high-profile Netflix series.

Temperamentally allergic to hard work, not to mention 2700 miles away and in pandemic lockdown, Davenport hires Baltimore’s Steve Rockfish to pursue the case. It could be murder, it could be child trafficking, it could be both. All Davenport knows for sure is that it has all the makings of a compelling story. And he’s right.

Steve Rockfish is delighted. His bank account has been slammed by the pandemic, and his clients are evaporating. So, a paying job? Sure, he can dig up some 70-year-old news stories and interview a few old folks. Expense account? Even better. Rockfish initially comes off as a bit of a middle-aged slacker. There’s a coarseness about him in the early part of the book that mostly disappears as the story heats up. Can he pull up his socks and do the job right?

Initial poking around reveals that in Elk Township, New Jersey, as many as a dozen unwed, pregnant women went missing in the early 1940s. Their infants disappeared. A black woman who was a kitchen-table midwife was eventually arrested but mysteriously escaped from her jail cell. Elk Township is a real-life place and, in this telling, some small-town attributes and attitudes persist, despite the area’s proximity to major urban centres like Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Though Rockfish has something of a drinking problem – a trait he shares with the man who hired him – it turns out he’s a good investigator, and knows how to work the system. He talks his way into interviews and makes valuable allies. He has a wicked sense of humour, and he’s perceptive. He locks onto the politics of the people he meets and, using their prejudices, cons them into revealing information they’d never tell him otherwise. He also makes some enemies he’d rather not have.

Jawnie McGee, great-granddaughter of the long-ago missing and presumed dead policeman, has his files and she and Rockfish find notes suggesting that the local Mafia family, the Provolones, and the Camden Catholic Diocese, were both involved in the disappearances. Jawnie turns out to be an excellent partner for Rockfish and has skills. His operational style and her facility with electronics are a solid combination.

Even more than 70 years later, powerful people are not happy with their probing – not the local cops, not the Mafia, and not the Church. How far will they go to keep Jawnie and Rockfish quiet? Pretty far, it turns out. This is one of those books you almost can’t read fast enough. It’s well-paced, full of action, and has the always-compelling theme of righting past wrongs.

A lot of writers say they don’t want to write about COVID – that living through it has been bad enough. But Harris uses it to show how his characters deal with difficult realities. What characters say about it, whether they wear a mask (properly) or not – those things are all part of life in the 2020s.

Harris is a New Jersey native, retired from more than three decades as an FBI cybersecurity executive, and his affection for his home state shines through. An epilogue reveals that The Pine Barrens Stratagem is the first of a series. A sequel is expected in July, and it’s something to look forward to.

Like the sound of this? Try Opal Country by Chris Hammer or The Engine House by Rhys Dylan.

Black Rose Writing

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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