SECRET UNTO DEATH by Emmett K. Smelser


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Smelser (Truth to Tell, 2016, etc.) tells the story of a small-town lawyer caught up in an escalating feud in this legal thriller.

Grant Russell has a pretty desirable life. The attorney specializes in family law at his father-in-law’s firm in quaint Arbor, Iowa. He lives with his wife and their two young daughters in a farmhouse on a big spread outside of town. One morning, while jogging down his road, Grant comes across two men in a pickup truck knocking over his neighbors’ mailboxes with a baseball bat. When Grant confronts them, they pelt him with a beer can and drive off, leaving him angry and more than a little embarrassed. He tries to forget the incident. He has enough to worry about at work; a colleague’s imminent retirement means he will become a full partner of the firm. What’s more, Lenore Patton, another colleague, has been making it clear that she wishes to sleep with him. When the truck containing the two mailbox vandals cuts off Grant in traffic, he gets the plate numbers and decides to call the sheriff, a decision which he quickly comes to second guess: “If there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that I’m not comfortable with confrontation and so I avoid it whenever possible. And as I thought about that, I had to ask myself again what the hell I was thinking in my weekend set-to over the mailboxes.” The vandals, cousins and small-time criminals named Rodney and Eugene Rickart, realize who turned them in and begin taking their revenge on Grant with increasingly aggressive acts of destruction. Even worse, Lenore Patton—spurned by Grant’s rejections of her advances—agrees to represent them in a harassment complaint against Grant. What began as a simple matter of mailbox vandalism quickly balloons into something far more sinister, and it won’t end before multiple people are dead.

Smelser writes in clean, expressive prose that captures Grant’s increasing paranoia as the plot develops: “I suddenly realized I had no idea what kind of guys these were or what they were capable of. Irresponsible, hard-drinking rednecks, yes. But were they dangerous?” Grant’s insecurity is a great driving force of the narrative and lends some depth to a character who might have otherwise seemed contrived. The author has a knack for getting quickly at characters’ deeper motivations, allowing the reader to connect with them in a way that is not often seen in a legal thriller. Smelser is comfortable allowing his cast to be flawed in mundane ways, which lends the story a whiff of disturbing inevitability. The exception is perhaps the flat, manipulative Lenore Patton. Smelser guides the plot in interesting directions from start to finish, as small decisions and secrets compound to unleash unanticipated and tragic ramifications. Once the reader begins listening to Grant’s tale, they may not be able to walk away.

A controlled, entertaining legal thriller about a lawyer dragged into a lawless conflict.

Pub Date: April 9th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-5301-9990-7
Page count: 294pp
Publisher: CreateSpace
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2018


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