This latest Jessica James mystery from Oliver (Wolf, 2016, etc.) follows the feisty heroine as she leaves college and returns to her mother’s trailer park in the tiny town of Whitefish, Montana.
In college, Jessica’s adviser was found dead in his bathtub, and she helped to unravel the crime. But as this new novel opens, readers are told that “she much preferred contemplating the mysteries of life to the mysteries of death.” She returns uneasily to the world of her crusty old mother in the Alpine Vista trailer park. As in the previous book, this fish-out-of-water heroine displays a very appealing, mordant wit: “She shuddered, imagining herself in a trailer next door to her mom, married to a beer swilling lumberjack, changing diapers and wiping up baby puke, a stash of Xanax in her nightstand and a bottle of Jack in her pantry to counteract the mind numbing domestic routine.” But any idea of peaceful retreat evaporates almost immediately. Johnny Dickerson perishes in a freak accident at the local mill, and only a week later, Jessica’s cousin Mike likewise dies under mysterious circumstances. Heartbroken, she involves herself in the investigation of these deaths, during which she uncovers nefarious doings involving not only murder, but also human trafficking and shady ecological manipulations by a powerful company and its local representative. Oliver draws all her secondary personae with skill and low-key drama, and the glimpses she gives of life in contemporary Montana—the human tragedies, the tempos, and the raw hopes of those surviving there—remain refreshingly authentic. The character of Jessica is sharpened and augmented from what readers encountered in the first book, and the author’s penchant for perfectly timed punch lines is on full display throughout. As in the first novel in the series, this latest book’s interwoven plots are a bit top-heavy. What this gains in page-turning, the story loses in an element of believability. But Oliver keeps the whole stew bubbling along so effectively that most readers shouldn’t complain.
A fast-paced and thoroughly engaging whodunit set in the American West.