A murder in the small Montana town of Sage Bluff reignites an investigation into the decades-old disappearance of two valuable Thomas Moran paintings.
Artist and debut author Cherry puts down her paintbrushes long enough to deliver a whodunit. Modern-day drug trafficking, stolen artworks, a 1918 murder witnessed by then-11-year-old John Running Bear at rural Montana’s Benedict’s Mission School for Native Americans, and a large cast of players are woven together, providing unifying threads back and forth between 1918 and the present. Jessie O’Bourne, a successful, 30-something artist, returns to her hometown (with her constant and cantankerous companion, Jack, a large, orange tomcat) to judge an art contest. When she pulls her old pickup truck to the side of the road to sketch some pastoral scenes, she discovers a limp and badly beaten young woman, Amber Reynolds, dumped and hidden among bales of hay next to her father’s barn. And so begins a series of murders that baffles the Sage Bluff police and questions the integrity of almost every character in this tale. Add in two romantic interests for Jessie (local Sgt. Russell Bonham, with whom she has a long, complicated back story, and FBI agent Grant Kennedy from the bureau’s art theft division), along with a few nicely placed misdirections, and the intricate story moves along at a fast clip. Cherry brings her artistic expertise and perceptions to the mystery genre—Jessie sees the world in vibrant splashes of color waiting to be recreated on canvas—and offers a bit of art history along the way. While the stolen paintings at the center of this well-plotted narrative are fictional, Moran was a real landscape artist with a distinguished career. His celebrated Rocky Mountain works helped lead to the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Cherry’s capable writing, however, deserves better copy editing. A typical misstep reads: “He parents are sure she it was probably her iPad.” And Chapter 5 is subtitled: “O’Bourne’s ranch, present day,” when it is in fact set in the sheriff’s office. A second Jessie O’Bourne novel is on the way.
The author saves a few surprises for the end in this enjoyable art mystery.