In Clifton’s (Seeking Cassandra, 2016, etc.) latest thriller, a detective steps outside his jurisdiction to help a mother prove an unidentified skull belongs to her decadeslong missing son.
Peony Folsom specifically requests Sam Chitto of the Choctaw Tribal Police in Oklahoma, since old mystic Sonny Boy Munro assured her that the detective can help. Sonny Boy calls him the Nameless One, a legendary hunter according to Choctaw teachings, and Peony wants Chitto to find her son, Walter, who’s been missing for over 35 years. Based on an artist’s rendering, Peony believes authorities found Walter’s skull in Leona Mann’s recently exhumed coffin, sans Leona’s head and the skull’s body. Retrieving Walter’s remains for a proper ceremony entails Chitto looking into a double homicide from the same night Walter vanished: Leona and her boyfriend, Billy Rob Niles. The detective’s perturbed by the sketchy investigation of the murders; there was no medical examiner involved, and a witness’s name was strangely omitted. But Chitto fears whoever murdered the couple—and maybe Walter as well—is still alive, and the hit-and-run that nearly killed Peony not long ago was a calculated response to the woman asking too many questions about the skull. Having well-established the protagonist’s Native American culture and back story (including his late wife, Mary) in the first Chitto novel, Clifton concentrates the series’ second tale on the mystery. There’s plenty to savor, from an unknown trainman who watched the cops move the couple’s bodies to Walter’s daughter, Crystal, aiding Chitto’s investigation and feeling sure that both her parents abandoned her. While readers may pinpoint the killer(s) before Chitto, the story ends with a lingering question open to interpretation (and one possible explanation that’s truly unsettling). Always-accommodating Sgt. Frank Tubbe makes a welcome return, but scene-stealing clerical floater Jasmine Birdsong proves useful in the probe as well as choosing a candidate for the position she’s temporarily filling. One can only hope she’ll stick around and become a series staple.
The dynamic protagonist leads a smart and indelible whodunit.