A group of midwestern college students exploring remote Lues Creek Canyon discovers the corpse of a naked woman. Police chief Colt Fellows efficiently identifies the departed as trashy Josie Fortune and the killer as her no-account husband Jack Hazard. Twenty years later, English scholar DJ (Josie) Fortune, the murdered woman’s daughter, returns to take a teaching position at Lues State. Raised by foster parents far from the scene of the crime, Josie has little knowledge of the murder or the incarceration of her father, who is back in society after serving his sentence. Nor is Josie, absorbed in her new teaching duties and English Department gossip, particularly curious. But the past comes calling in the form of anonymous threatening notes whose form and syntax match a message carved on the body of Josie’s mother a generation ago. Josie pores over old newspapers, tracks down some of the witnesses, and consults Colt Fellows, who eventually discloses that Jack wasn’t the killer after all. Thenceforth the plot takes surprising, albeit awkward, directions, each with its own collection of suspects. Jack lives as a mountain man with his brother Virgil, who at one point kidnaps Josie. Surviving lawmen from the old probe reveal hidden agendas. The students who found the body try to protect long-buried secrets. Even Josie’s colleagues evince suspicious behavior and irrational grudges.
Smith delineates his large cast concisely and writes with verve and style about campus life. But his unwieldy debut stretches credibility at every turn.