In a first novel from acclaimed true-crime writer Earley (Super Casino, 2000, etc.), the disappearance of a Washington journalist prompts a search by her ex that stirs powerful men with damaging secrets.
Hero and narrator Nick LeRue works as an investigator for respected Senator Leslie DeLong, a Texas Democrat. Nick’s increasingly jaded view of the Washington bureaucracy isn’t helped by his souring personal life: he was recently dumped by girlfriend Heather Cole, an ambitious reporter. When her twin sister Melanie buttonholes him in a restaurant, Nick at first thinks it’s a joke, so similar does she look to Heather. But the distressed Melanie reports that Heather is missing somewhere in Mississippi, where she’s been probing a 1955 lynching. Though Nick dismisses Melanie’s claim that Heather communicates with her in dreams, he agrees to help look for her. Interwoven chapters from Heather’s perspective reveal that she’s been captured by a sadistic racist, while Nick and Melanie encounter complex community reaction to the past, with racial tension still simmering below the surface. They find the infamous tree used in the lynching, immortalized with the initials of the perpetrators and known as the “trophy tree.” Heather recognizes one of her captors as an influential Washingtonian, Senator Nehemiah Peterson, and, shortly thereafter, with the help of local Sheriff Moorehead, Nick and Melanie find the cabin where Heather’s been kept, as well as the murdered body of her captor, Jeb Rogge, one of the men whose initials are on the trophy tree. Heather is gone, but articles of clothing left behind confirm she’d been there; later, her body is discovered. Lester Alfred, the son of Jeb’s deceased partner in crime, is also found suspiciously killed. Nick and Melanie return to Washington, where darker threats and plot twists await.
Earley effectively tweaks the novel genre, beginning as a conventional chase thriller that grows deeper and more relevant as the story progresses.