Fast-paced thriller gives a new twist to the familiar premise of the past catching up to an escaped killer with a new identity.
The twist is that the murderous past belongs to a Southern housewife. Vera Lee Gifford was only 16 when she killed two men in a topless bar in South Florida and then the wife of her super-shady lawyer, Lance Underwood. There were extenuating circumstances: Before the killings, Lance had fired up the stunning little blonde with drugs. Vera Lee went to jail, but a year later got out in an escape engineered by another inmate, Thelma Jackson. Using information she had picked up in the joint, Vera Lee presented herself to a sweet, grieving couple who adopted her and gave her the name of their dead daughter. Now, Patsy Palmer lives in Charlotte, N.C. She’s a successful realtor, a loving wife and a model mom; no one knows her secret. The story opens with Thelma’s murder in Gainesville; the detective on the case is Rodney Ellis, who arrested Vera Lee back in 1976. Rodney, clearly intended to be the novel’s second lead, is dutifully given a chance to display his human qualities during visits to his dying partner, but Patsy/Vera Lee is the star of the show. It becomes clear that she’s still haunted by childhood memories of an abusive stepfather, a mother who disappeared and a younger sister she abandoned. MacEnulty combines the murder investigation with Patsy’s increasingly desperate struggle to maintain a façade of normalcy. While the author successfully spliced drugs, crime and lost souls in previous thrillers like The Language of Sharks (2004), here she loses control of her material. A blackmail attempt, a second murder and two kidnappings climax with a wholly unbelievable dénouement in a Florida lighthouse as a hurricane hits land.
Less backstory and more prominent roles for the bad guys might have given this more edge.