Journalist/thriller writer Smith (The Wild Duck Chase, 2012, etc.) uses the death of a successful developer to dig deep into the victim’s family and the California landscape.
Some people call Paul Dwyer the man who built the San Fernando Valley’s Inland Empire; some call him a hard-nosed bargainer who resented every penny he paid his contractors. His wife, Shelby, and their 17-year-old daughter, Chloe, could add much more if they chose. Shelby, for instance, knows that her husband was murdered by LoveSick, the online correspondent to whom she poured out her heart and received in exchange his promise to grant her dearest wish, an outcome that shocks and horrifies her. When Dwyer’s found dumped in an evaporating pond in Villa Condero, one of his own developments, the detective who catches the case is Ron Starke, a significant fraction of the Los Colmas Police Department. He’s an even better choice than his coldhearted boss, Chief Donna Kerrigan, can know, because Shelby Dwyer was his first love 20 years ago, long before she was married and widowed. Treading on eggshells when he’s obliged to question Shelby, he’s drawn instead to search for the perfectly good computer she traded in the day she reported her husband missing, even though he has an uneasy feeling it will disclose information he doesn’t want to learn. At length Starke’s inquiries, which lead him further and further out on a limb, get him placed on administrative leave just in time for LoveSick to swoop down in the middle of a forest fire right out of Ross Macdonald’s classic Southern California fable The Underground Man.
Smith’s bite-sized chapters keep the pot boiling—even if many of the ingredients here are familiar, they’re expertly mixed—and the denouement will likely pack a punch even for readers who’ve seen it coming.