Engaging legal-suspenser about a sheriff’s detective and a case too troubling to call.
Lines of tension emerge at once as Los Angeles Times reporter Siegel (Actual Innocence, 1999, etc.) brings a slate of sharply etched characters onto the scene of a housefire in the mid-California coastal village of La Graciosa. Detective Doug Bard clearly riles Sheriff Howie Dixon, and Bard finds DA Angela Stark moves too quickly to judgment. Along with newspaper editor Jimmy O’Connor, whose presence also irks Dixon, they investigate the fire that took the life of genial Ollie Murta and one of his piano students, 11-year-old Merilee Cooper. Accidental death, Stark insists, with Dixon quickly lining up in agreement. The scrupulous and sensitive Bard disagrees: Clues suggest foul play. Before long, responding to Bard’s insistent prodding, Stark reverses her ruling and has crotchety Jed Jeremiah arrested for the crime. Still, Bard isn’t satisfied, finding the county’s case against Jeremiah too pat. When Stark and Dixon have the irrepressible Bard taken off the case, the detective goes it alone, with some investigative assistance from editor O’Connor. The involvement in the matter of developers who may transform the charmingly authentic village into another town of beige malls and condos becomes apparent. Pretty clear, too, is the perpetrator of the crime. The suspense, then, emerges from Bard’s need to uncover the evidence that nails his suspect before jurors convict Jeremiah in a swiftly moving trial. Troubling Bard is a possible link between his ex-wife Sasha and the developers. Indeed, the case is driven by the characters’ personal connections to it, by their past histories—by the lines of defense they construct for their actions. Justice becomes not an abstract issue, but a force buffeted by the emotions and ambitions of fallible men and women.
Expertly judged writing, thoughtful observations, warm and likable characters: Siegel’s third thriller is a promising start, perhaps, to a new series.