An absorbing murder mystery with the right number of moving parts.
It’s hard to say who exactly is the protagonist of Jenkins’ debut novel, though its central figure—the murder victim—looms large throughout. Harley Groves, a Korean War vet who walks using a pair of ingeniously engineered rockers after having lost both feet, is kind and remarkably progressive for mid-20th-century East Texas. After a brief prologue in which we learn of his death, the first part of the book follows Harley’s life after returning home to Longview, Texas, in 1952. Harley opened a pool hall on his property (the eponymous Chicken Shack) and hired Charlie Hiller and Willie Washington, two preteen boys, one white and one black. He became their mentor. Despite the town’s palpable racial tension, Harley fell in love with Willie’s older sister Ramona. Sadly, few of the residents of Longview were as forward-thinking as Groves, and one fateful night, some customers’ intolerance drove him to violence. In 1982, Harley and Ramona are living a quiet, private life; the Chicken Shack has been long shuttered, and developers are hungry for land—especially the 200 acres Harley owns. Jenkins adroitly introduces plenty of characters with plenty of motive before the deed is done, so to speak, and Ramona is left to prove her partner’s death was not a suicide. In a convenient plot development, Charlie Hiller and Willie Washington have both gone on to be wealthy, successful men and devote themselves to solving the case. While these two are the most one-dimensional of the book’s characters, thankfully most of the actual sleuthing falls to Hiller’s beautiful PI friend Jules Elizondo—a brave and whip-smart woman with no qualms about using her looks to put men at ease. Funny and engaging, in Jules, Jenkins has created a character who could easily carry a mystery series of her own. When she finally determines the identity of Harley’s killer, it’s a surprising turn.
Plenty of suspense and more heart than your average mystery.