This prequel to the Frank Nagler mystery series helps readers understand how the detective originally struggled, much like the city he serves.
This case is set about 20 years before The Swamps of Jersey (2014), the first of three volumes of Nagler present-day mysteries. Young Frank is a rookie detective on the police force in Ironton, New Jersey, his hometown. He is learning as he goes: “He felt he was running just to keep up, slogging through the everyday stuff of what he didn’t know, what he couldn’t imagine, one hand outstretched to feel the fog.” But a month after becoming a detective, he gets put on the Red Hand murder case, in which four women had been killed in various ways. Tying them together is a red hand-print emblazoned with the words “Hand of Death” at each crime scene. What is making these serial murders more difficult to solve is the lack of a discernible pattern. As Medical Examiner Walter Mulligan explains, “Someone is experimenting in death.” Complicating Frank’s life is that his wife, Martha, his childhood sweetheart, is dying from cancer. In addition, behind the scenes, the mayor and his cohorts are using the paranoia caused by the killings to scoop up real estate cheaply. Furthermore, the chief detective on the case is the mayor’s inside man. So Frank has to push past these personal and institutional obstacles while attempting to solve this baffling case.
This dense, engrossing prequel illuminates why Frank embraces Ironton before economic decline and corruption totally savaged the town. Ironton is a character that Daigle (The Frank Nagler Mysteries: An Anthology, 2018, etc.) brings to atmospheric life in his work: “The sun had squeezed out of the mud the greasy mix of rotten plants, moldy, sweating trash, motor oil that had leaked from dismembered, rusted cars parts, and the musk of dead animals, and then compacted it.” It’s a wonder that Frank never fled Ironton, but, through his memories, this novel shows that it was home to him and Martha. That’s why, despite his hard-won cynicism, Frank still holds out hope, much like Ironton itself, seeking to rebound from ruin. This tale also presents younger versions of characters who continue to affect Frank today. These include Martha, newspaperman Jimmy Dawson, priggish superior Chris Foley, and down-on-his-luck Del Williams. This allows readers to gauge how relationships with Frank have developed through the decades. The author’s pacing is immaculate in this gruesome thriller, as he ratchets up the tension as each additional body is found. He also captures a portrait of a once-thriving community in chaos as fear sweeps through Ironton. While the fledgling detective often finds himself adrift while investigating the case, Frank’s moral compass never wavers, even when the town and its officials are ready to lynch an unlikely suspect. This makes him almost a lone voice in the wilderness but his gut proves right in the end. What results is a taut look back at the birth of a memorable character.
A winning origin story for one of modern fiction’s expertly drawn detectives.