Accomplished business writer Barnes (Consulting on the Inside, 2011, etc.) makes her first foray into mystery, with murder, mergers and mayhem.
Organization development consultant Sarah Hawthorne receives an unexpected, unsettling phone call from a client at 3 a.m. When that client disappears and is later found dead, Sarah finds herself drawn into the police investigation, with detectives hoping to use her inside knowledge of the company to help whittle down the suspect list. Struggling to reconcile that task with her professional ethics, Sarah initially embarks on some tentative interviewing, but a second murder causes her to wholeheartedly commit to the investigation, even traveling out of state to track down leads. Barnes writes with the same elegant clarity and formality that enrich her nonfiction, although it can sometimes make this mystery feel stuffy (e.g., “as she had neither the technical nor the executive background that might help her gain an understanding of the effectiveness of one strategic direction over another”). Though typically brief, didactic passages are somewhat frequent, and they detract from the story’s pacing. Dialogue often comes across as wooden and unnatural, and characters use contractions far less frequently than they would in real life. The resulting story is interesting enough, but it never fully finds its footing. Some plot twists strain credulity, such as the police asking a civilian and potential suspect for help, but, in contrast, character development is deft and sure, with particularly appealing diversity among the characters in terms of ages, nationalities, ethnicities and values. The novelty of a business consultant in a detective role also adds to the enjoyment. Barnes suggests that this is the first book in a corporate mystery series, so readers can anticipate improvement over time, especially since Barnes has the raw writing talent and complex characters needed to produce a page turner. Her first fiction effort merely stumbles over itself while trying to showcase that potential.
An unusual concept and strong characters shine through stilted writing and unbelievable plot devices.