by Samantha Jayne Allen
Annie McIntyre stands between college graduation, which was supposed to open the doors to everything, and a future that seems as directionless as the west Texas desert.
She never felt like she belonged in the private, out-of-state college she went to. She’s going to have to start repaying thousands of dollars in student loans in a few months. A college advisor is urging her to go to law school.
“I didn’t know to stay or to go, only that what I had in Garnett — my family and my friends, our favorite haunts and all the stars in the vast night sky — was real, realer than the coasts and private schools and jobs in the big cities.”
Annie is caught in one of life’s gaps where the road map runs out and next steps are uncertain.
In Garnett, she’s living with her cousin Nikki and waiting tables at the café. Mary-Pat Zimmerman, Annie’s grandfather Leroy’s partner in McIntyre Investigations, offers her a part-time job filing and typing in the office. She takes it for the extra cash.
Everything changes when the strangled and crudely buried body of Victoria, Annie’s co-worker at the café, is found on the McIntyre’s rundown family ranch.
Annie and Nikki had seen her at a bonfire party on the adjacent Schneider ranch. She’d been wobbly and incoherent with alcohol. She wouldn’t take a ride home when Annie offered. Now she was dead, leaving behind a little girl, a trailer and some land she’d recently inherited from her grandmother.
Annie remembers talks they’d had on breaks; she was the “kind of girl who hung out in dark bars listening to country and western, she was the kind of girl who saw beauty in the shadows.”
But seeing her body in the dry dirt changes everything for Annie.
“It’s about being in the throes of the dark thing that calls you,” she thinks. “If I hadn’t gone to the place that day, hadn’t witnessed the place she’d lain, I likely would have done something entirely different with my life.”
When the police arrest Fernando, the cook at the café, his grandmother pleads with Mary-Pat and Leroy to investigate and help his public defender attorney free him. Annie joins the investigation as an apprentice.
You won’t find a blockbuster mystery here. The whodunnit part seems like deja vu all over again. There’s no twisted, surprise ending. The suspense about what Annie is going to do with her life that is more compelling than who killed Victoria.
It is author Samantha Jayne Allen’s haunting depiction of small town life and of a loving and protective family at odds with itself that will keep you reading.
She writes of an empty Main Street “dark but for the water tower’s blue glow, still but for the flags flown above the courthouse snapping in the wind.” She writes of first loves and betrayals, of a lightning-struck house burned to the ground 20 years earlier, of plans to rebuild that came to nothing, and hope so alive Leroy still keeps a “beautiful leather saddle, price tag still on, propped on a sawhorse” for the day when he can run horses again on his own land.
The beauty of Allen’s writing, the vividness of the scenes she depicts and the richness of her characters make this book a pleasure to read.
The Author: Samantha Jayne Allen
PAY DIRT ROAD, Samantha Jayne Allen’s first book, won the 2019 Tony Hillerman Prize for Best First Mystery Set in the Southwest.
Her work has been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Common, and Electric Literature.
She grew up in small towns in Texas and California. She earned a master’s in fine arts degree in fiction from Texas State University.
She now lives in Atlanta with her husband.