Not quite a thriller, but far too grisly for the run-of-the-mill family drama, Estill’s second novel (Evening Would Find Me, 2000) is a taut examination of familial loyalty.
Though the plot centers on a murder investigation, spun around it are the lives of three women, touched to various degrees by the violent death of young Dahlia. Sand Williams has spent much of her adult life in places no one wants to visit, war-torn countries and places of famine, first as a reporter and then as an aid worker. Now married to another aid worker, she and her husband decide on an indefinite respite at her father’s old Ozark cabin. When asked by neighbor Norah, a prim, disapproving fundamentalist, to look in on her two kids while she and her husband vacation, Sand (who loathes Norah) reluctantly agrees. After a violent storm, Sand drops by the house and finds 17-year-old, mildly-retarded Timothy napping on the couch while 18-year-old Dahlia lies murdered in her bed. Her body has been cleaned and drained, but underneath the fresh nightie are 20 stab wounds. The police suspect Timothy, but with no evidence, and, because of the tricky nature of interrogating him, they have to wait and see what turns up. In charge of the case is Patti Callahan, the only woman in the department and also the ex-lover of Sand’s dead father. Patti and Sand are haunted by Dahlia’s killing (made worse by Norah telling the town that Sand is a likely suspect), but it is Norah and her husband Lyman who have to confront the murder, and perhaps murderer, in their midst. Dahlia was Lyman’s daughter and Timothy belongs to Norah, the product of an abusive marriage. Now Lyman also suspects Timothy is the killer, while Norah and Timothy take refuge in their church. Estill plants a few convincing red herrings along the way, but this is less a murder mystery than a fast-paced character study, accomplished in its rendering of grief and anger and in its examination of how murder can destroy more than just the victim.
Well-crafted suspense pushes along a perceptive meditation on the bonds of faith and family.