A university professor with secrets gets entangled in a murder mystery in Scott’s (Margel’s Madness, 2015, etc.) latest series thriller.
Middle-aged Gil Hodges, director of the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources, finds a severed finger in his office. As a police detective starts an inquiry, Liz Horvath, a retired professor of psychology and counseling, shows up to talk to Gil about Tiffany Burgess, one of her patients. Gil met Tiffany three years ago, when she was 15 and living on Matinicus Island, off the Maine coast. He hasn’t seen her since, but he knows that the eccentric teen has been periodically breaking into his campus office, taking insignificant items, and later returning them. He suspects Tiffany of giving him the severed finger and also of surreptitiously entering his condo and stealing a small safe. But Gil doesn’t impart this information to authorities—even after Tiffany subsequently appears in his classroom. It turns out that the two share a potentially dangerous secret regarding some deaths back on Matinicus. Gil surmises that Tiffany’s presence in Maine is a vague threat, because the secret involved the professor lying to quite a few people. But then she asks for his assistance in getting back her daughter, whose custody she lost. On the pretense of a family emergency, Gil takes leave from the university and heads to Matinicus to help, which may result in him finally telling the truth about what happened three years ago. But it isn’t long before a likely staged suicide puts everyone on the island under suspicion—with outsider Gil at the top of the list.
Readers need not be familiar with Scott’s preceding novels, which also star Gil, to enjoy this third installment. Although the story heavily references an earlier book, the prologue offers some clarification for new readers. The professor isn’t a particularly likable protagonist; he’s known for having inappropriate relationships with his female college students, for example. But he also seems invested in his search for redemption—persistently struggling to improve on what he calls “the old me.” Gil also becomes more sympathetic as the story progresses; for example, he keeps his secret not only due to self-preservation, but also because he believes that the truth will endanger many others. In addition to various mysteries (whose finger is that, anyway?), there are some genuinely chilling moments, as when Gil, at one point, sees signs that a stranger has been inside his home. The conclusion does deftly reveal the killer’s identity, although the person’s motives are a bit convoluted. Still, Scott offers sharply defined characters as well as effervescent detail: “The harbor opens up as we round the breakwater—a semi-circle of small, weathered homes revealing themselves alongside workshops dotted with propane tanks and outhouses; finger piers crammed with wire traps, gaggles of lobster pots, coiled line, and assorted other gear.” Supporting characters also stand out—most notably Al Freeman, who, along with his late wife, raised the abandoned Tiffany as his own.
An exceptional whodunit that simmers with mystery and suspense.