Dougherty and McBrien are back in Mulligan’s latest historical thriller (The Haystack, 2012, etc.); the doctor and the pharmacist investigate a murder and unravel what may be the work of a serial killer.
In mid-19-century Pennsylvania, town physician Maj. James Dougherty is called when miners are injured in a cave-in. Dougherty finds a man, Brogan, buried in the rubble, but a bullet hole in the body suggests foul play. The doctor; his friend and pharmacist, Sean McBrien; and Dougherty’s wife, Jen, peruse letters and newspaper clippings that Brogan left behind and realize that the dead man may have been on the trail of a murderer. The novel is an incisive murder mystery that takes advantage of its historical backdrop—it’s set months after the Civil War, in which both Dougherty and McBrien fought. Obstacles for the heroes (the local director of the mining company tries to steer the investigation in another direction involving a secret society) and short passages featuring the killer generate suspense. The mystery is predominant in the book, but Mulligan does inject finer character traits that enhance the story, like Jen’s envy of a widow’s two boys—the young wife recently lost her child at birth. Brogan’s documents, consisting mostly of witness testimonies and newspaper articles, dominate too much of the story. They do establish the killer’s pattern but some might have been summarized in lieu of being presented verbatim. The newspaper stories brim with assurances that the murderer has been caught or killed (when readers know he’s alive and well) and, as the investigation eventually proves, quite a bit of misinformation—the narrative ultimately concedes the power of “black ink upon white paper.” The leads are strong, but they’re eclipsed by an unnerving psychopathic killer (he calls himself the Diarist; others are more direct, preferring the Butcher); and amateur sleuth Jen, who kisses her husband goodbye only after ordering him “to bring back a full report.”
Fans of historical fiction will admire the setting, but the plot and resounding characters will leave mystery fans aglow.