Savage Ridge by Morgan Greene

3 Mins read
Savage Ridge by Morgan Greene front cover

Savage Ridge is a thriller named for the tiny town in the Northwest United States where the action takes place. Ten years before the now of the story, three teenage best friends – Nicholas Pips, Emmy Nailer, and Peter Sachs – committed murder.

This isn’t a spoiler; you find it out on page one. Past history with the victim made them suspects in the crime but an air-tight alibi set them free. For the past decade, they have deliberately kept out of touch, scattered across the western United States. Now, within days of each other, they’ve all come back to their home town, where the ghosts of the past confront them on every street and around every corner. Coincidence? Not a chance.

Welsh author Morgan Greene tells the story in chapters that alternate between then and now, and between perspectives – mostly those of Nicholas Pips; the long-time sheriff, Barry Poplar; Ellison Saint John, son of the wealthiest man in the valley and brother of Sammy, the victim; and Sloane Yo, a private detective Ellison has hired to reexamine the case. Her first assignment was: bring them all back.

Pips killed Sammy Saint John with a blow to the head, but the other two teens were also very much involved. They lured Sammy to the spot where he was attacked and helped dig his grave. However, because of that perfect alibi, evidence (or lack thereof) trumped suspicion.

Sachs has thrived in his new life away from Savage Ridge, Pips has had a mediocre decade, and Nailer is a mess. None of them escapes the guilt they feel about the murder, no matter how much they reassure each other that it was wholly justified. The crime looms over them like the steep hillsides loom over the town, their pine forests jagged sentinels against the sky, ever watching and darkening the outlook of the people below. Nor are the three friends exactly the same people they were 10 years before and, as the story progresses, the absolute trust they once had in each other is increasingly, dangerously, shaky.

Yo’s investigations reveal Sammy was much disliked by his classmates and had zero friends. He was not the golden boy his father and brother pretend he was, but the product of an entitled, autocratic, abusive man. When Ellison comes home from college around the time Sammy dies, he’s shocked at the way the old man treats the younger boy. But now, 10 years later, he’s become obsessed with Sammy’s death. His father is dying, on a respirator and unable to speak. Ellison desperately hopes that, by pinning the crime on his only suspects – Pips, Nailer and Sachs – he can gain his father’s respect at last. It must be soon, or it will be too late.

Knowing who the perpetrators were, you can observe how they’ve been affected, how with outsiders they never break their oath of silence. Still, Nailer seems increasingly likely to crack as Yo circles closer and closer. In a very real sense, you can think of this as a psychological thriller, because of Greene’s careful construction of the mental states of the three killers. Their reactions, their jockeying with Yo and with each other create much of the tension.

Savage Ridge is also fascinating study of small-town life. Everyone knows everyone else, for good or ill. Everyone has felt the overweening power of the Saint John family. They may not like it, but they appear almost helpless against it. Of course, Washington State is dramatic and beautiful, with the trees’ fresh pine smell blowing through town, but is that enough? Three teenagers deciding it isn’t and moving far away is what the townsfolk are used to.

Yo’s agenda is pretty straightforward, and she’s relentless. Facing demons and difficulties of her own, she needs this case to be a success. The bits and pieces she’s assembling to figure out what happened, reading transcripts and interviewing detectives from the original investigation, are gradually moving her toward the truth. But any real breakthrough isn’t coming.

Savage Ridge is a real page-turner. The plot in some ways seems thin – you know who did it – but the why is unstated for a long time. Meanwhile, the characterisations are so strong, I found myself really caring about all three of the friends, and Sloane Yo, too.

Also see Phil Kurthausen’s How to Kill Your Friends.

Canelo Crime

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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