A teenager and his uncle investigate a Maryland murder with dangerous implications.
Dedicated to “victims of corporate greed and environmental destruction,” author and licensed acupuncturist Allen’s (The Yeti Quotient, 2011) novel incorporates elements of corruption, deception, avarice, and heroism, beginning with the at-gunpoint kidnapping of ecological engineer Andrew “Andy” Harrington. Months later, a Halloween hayride chaperone for Maryland’s historic Ellicott City school sports program discovers the bones of a young girl long entombed in the foundation of the Patapsco Female Institute, an abandoned facility previously used to house young women over a century ago. Thirteen-year-old, redheaded Jack Tasker and his uncle/caretaker Ben, a snoopy local news reporter, become curious about the discovery, especially when a more recently buried body is uncovered near the institute, which ratchets up the enigma twofold. Meanwhile, burned-out local politician Eugene Clark receives a shifty offer to form a “symbiotic relationship” with an unscrupulous multinational natural gas company to allow hydro-fracking near several key waterways like the Chesapeake Bay in exchange for his guaranteed re-election as a county executive. Clark is bullied into signing the agreement just as reports emerge that the newly excavated body is that of a young man who’d been shot to death. Believing the institute is haunted, Jack and Ben go on a clandestine fact-finding mission. This further solidifies their relationship as uncle and nephew, but also as inquisitive, if neophyte, detectives in a tale that—because of its innocuous detailing and climactic plotting—should have safe appeal for both YA and adult mystery fans. The compelling story continues to unravel with an otherworldly aspect when the two encounter an apparition and a backpack ditched in the hollow of a tree trunk. A telltale diary leads to long-held secrets that place Jack and Ben in the cross hairs of despicable corporate henchmen banking on the success of a nefarious corruption scheme. The tale is smoothly written in clipped chapters with lots of homespun tidbits, informational asides on the semantics of hydraulic fracturing, and vivid, politically charged backlash and environmental intrigue. Though the two protagonists remain charismatic and remarkably engaging throughout, both deserve more than a few pages of back story. Hopefully, readers will get to know more about the dynamic duo in future installments of Allen’s series.
A serpentine whodunit with amateur sleuthing, plenty of satisfying suspense, and more adventures ahead.