By Samantha Jayne Allen; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
Drought-parched Garnett, TX, is hit by a deluge and battered by a flash flood as underground crevasses fill with water swelling the Geronimo and Angel rivers as they converge.
Bethany Keller Richter would have lost her life in the flood had a stranger not helped her grab a tree branch. He was swept away in the flood waters.
She had been thrown from the balcony of the vacation cottage she was staying in with two married friends, Kendall and Michael Davis. The Davises were trapped in a bedroom when the flood hit and drowned. Bethany’s husband, John David Richter, might have died, too, had he not been called away to the beside of a dying parishioner from Hillview Church.
When she decides to track down the mysterious stranger to thank him – or to give condolences to his family — it’s natural to turn to McIntyre Investigations. In a town as small as Garnett, there aren’t many choices. She’s known Annie McIntyre since grade school. McIntyre Investigations was founded by Annie’s grandfather Leroy and his former partner in the sheriff’s office, Mary-Pat Zimmerman.
Annie McIntyre has just earned the hours to apply for a private investigator’s license. Leroy and Mary-Pat are offering her a partnership. The job Bethany has come to them for will be Annie’s first solo case.
All Bethany knows about the man who saved her is that he had long, light brown hair, looked like Jesus, had a blue rose tattoo and wore a t-shirt imprinted with the name of an animal shelter.
This is a classic police procedural where Annie, advised by Leroy, traces every trail to identify and locate the mystery man. According to the police and fire chiefs, there are no unidentified bodies and no reports of missing people.
Pastor Brad Little at Hillview Church tells her that man of that description may have participated in the church’s addiction recovery meetings. He might also have worked with Jacinda Moore. He described Jacinda as eccentric and smart with a wicked sense of humor. She and her late husband were building contractors who did work and missionary projects at Hillview Church.
But Annie hears other rumors about Jacinda: her construction company keeps losing bids to rivals; she went AWOL for several days on the last church trip to Mexico to help build housing and churches; she’s amassing gambling debts and may be selling drugs.
When Annie goes to the Moore property, she finds a body missed by searchers. It’s Jacinda’s in a half-submerged truck. Annie quickly realizes that it wasn’t the flood that killed Jacinda; it was bullet to the head.
This is a mystery that seems to defy solution: a man who survives a flood but then vanishes; a prominent citizen shot; overdoses, addiction, theft and insurance fraud connected to oxycodone, fentanyl and worse drugs; the effects of land development on a flood plain; and the dwindling life of the community of Garnett itself.
Despite her own self-doubt after only six months of training as an investigator, Annie is dogged and disciplined. She picks at the mingled strands of this mystery until the connections all become clear.
Like the first book in this series, PAY DIRT ROAD, this one is atmospheric and flirts with the darker side of life: the survival of a fading small Texas town, fierce and unpredictable weather, change and family secrets.
Annie struggles for clarity about her future and her place in the world. She still has doubts about whether it had been a good idea to return to Garnett after going to college out-of-state and racking up student loans.
Her cousin and former roommate Nikki is engaged to be married. Annie isn’t thrilled by Nikki’s choice of groom and she hates to lose the easy relationship they had. Annie has a sometimes magical, sometimes opaque relationship with her former high school boyfriend, Wyatt, now a graduate student and teaching assistant in the geography department of nearby state college.
Wes is pushing to move in together. Annie is struggling to hold on to the space to be herself and having the faith to risk the next step in their relationship.
The mystery plot in this book is much stronger than in PAY DIRT ROAD. But Annie’s ongoing doubts about her future seem less rational in this book. Instead of gaining confidence from successfully earning the hours to get her own license and being invited to be a partner, she still seems to be debating whether she should have come back to Garnett.
Change challenges Annie. As she says at the end of the book, “As much as I wanted to believe I knew this place like the back of my hand, the river never was the same, it was always changing, and while I was sure there was something to be gleaned from that, I only felt dizzy and a little blue as we walked. It took me a long time to understand the difference between owning a place and being of a place.”
The real question is can author Samantha Jayne Allen grow Annie into a confident character who can carry future mysteries with interest and distinction.
The Author: Samantha Jayne Allen
Samantha Jayne Allen‘s first book, PAY DIRT ROAD, won the Tony Hillerman Prize for Best First Mystery Set in the Southwest.
Allen earned a master’s in fine arts degree in fiction from Texas State University. Her writing has been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Common, and Electric Literature.
Raised in small towns in Texas and California, she now lives in Atlanta with her husband and daughter.
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