A TV journalist’s rising star is knocked sideways when she returns to her small hometown to clean up her late father’s unfinished business.
Richards (A Most Uncommon Journey, 2000, etc.) starts her murder mystery cum political broadside on a deathbed. Cassie Danforth’s father, a much admired newspaper editor, is about to expire. He asks Cassie to return home and take the reins of the paper. Lastly, he cryptically whispers, “It… begins… here.” Cassie is ambivalent, but she heeds her father’s wishes, including learning the meaning of his final words. Richards lovingly, chromatically evokes the atmosphere of a small, well-preserved North Carolina town, its bosky precincts—the courthouse square, the outlying plantation houses—as well as its ugly underbelly; it’s always a delightful surprise, bookwise, to discover the depravity lurking in the most genteel settings, and Richards plays the card with finesse. A dashing stranger comes to town, Cooper Canaday (revealed to be running for a U.S. Senate seat and looking to tidy up some unfinished business of his own), whose soon-to-blossom romantic interest in Cassie develops in a most chivalrous fashion. Embracing the whole tale is the creation of a third national political party, which Cooper, Linwood Johnson (a local football hero turned college professor) and a handful of poobahs wish Cassie to join. This political party is where the story meets a hiccup. It’s not enough for readers to be told the nation’s political system is a viper’s nest of greed, arrogance and self-indulgence, and Richards provides few platform particulars of the third party on which to hang your hat. Richards presents great characters, suffusing each with a robust personality, so their lapses into speechifying feel especially wayward: “Obstinate, unyielding personalities equate to stalemate while the country flounders. There are solutions, and those solutions will take courage,” Linwood woodenly says at one point. Meanwhile, the third-party’s leader leaves readers wondering just why he got the post. Still, Richards handles the mystery with aplomb, teasing the crime into greater darkness and the shadow players into ever increasing menace.
Characters both sympathetic and vile and a neat, mean, little mystery rescue the story from well-intended but bombastic political philosophizing.