Immunologist Vernon’s fiction debut is a Southern Gothic steeped in politics, adultery, family dysfunction, and murder.
Christmas Eve finds alcoholic heiress Gray Godfrey, who’s returned for one of her infrequent pilgrimages to Piper Point, the South Carolina home of her imperious mother, in the arms of Jacob Wilcox, an old friend-with-benefits who smooches her up on the dance floor at Ruby’s and finds his kiss returned with interest. Of all the scandalized spectators on hand to watch the show, Gray’s husband, Paul, a clean-energy lobbyist with political aspirations, is the most shaken. Before he can do more than scream at his wife briefly, she blacks out, and when she awakens on Christmas morning, she’s alone in bed, and Detective Nina Palmer, of the Elizabeth County Sheriff’s Office, reports that Paul’s car has been found abandoned along a highway. Gray, her recently divorced sister, and her lawyer cousin do their best to deflect gossip that finds in Paul Godfrey’s disappearance an echo of real-life South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s absence while he was reportedly hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2009. As Gray’s experiments with sobriety return decidedly mixed results, she receives a voicemail message from someone calling herself Annie who wants a hush-hush meeting to talk about Paul. Instead of showing up, however, Annie follows up her first contact with a series of increasingly intrusive, disturbing, and frankly mocking messages that threaten Gray’s hold on both her husband and her sanity.
Although the Grand Guignol climax won’t surprise genre veterans, Vernon creates a fleet, suffocating sense of velvet nightmare as he races through the list of all the taboos readers would love to believe every wealthy, politically connected Southern family has violated.