A former FBI agent investigating a string of killings, all affiliated with a particular church, uncovers dark secrets in this debut thriller.
U.S. authorities have linked two recent murders with similar M.O.s: a man in North Carolina with drill-puncture wounds and another in West Virginia whose body contained 35 10-inch wood screws. Retired fed Daniel Ficus enlists the help of ex-FBI agent Karen McIntyre because of the victims’ associations with Hillbourne Tabernacle Ministries. As it happens, there are quite a few more HTM members who have died within the last couple of years. Though cops haven’t deemed most of the deaths as homicides, Ficus, the chief of security for HTM, wants Karen to investigate them—and as quietly as possible. In a concurrent subplot, 9-year-old Clara Lino is living a bleak existence in Honduras. One day, her abusive prostitute mother sells Clara to a gringo. Some strangers take the girl to Casa Crystal, a reputed orphanage where she and other children are subjected to rape and general maltreatment. The deviants running the orphanage later ship Clara and the others to America, where their predicament, if anything, only worsens. Befriending some of her fellow captives, Clara soon looks for a means of escape. Meanwhile, in the course of her inquiry, Karen links yet another death to the rest, but one in which the victim may have hidden a rather repulsive pastime. As she inches closer to identifying the murderer, Karen suspects HTM is keeping secrets from her. When her life inevitably intersects with Clara’s, answers, however appalling, will come to light.
The things that Clara endures makes Hulsman’s book anything but a breezy read. It is nevertheless thoroughly engaging, starting with the astonishing female protagonists. Tormented Clara, for one, copes with help from her grandfather’s love of Greek mythology; at one point, she sees herself as Persephone, remaining strong-willed against her captors (metaphorically Hades). Karen, for her part, has a curiously murky background, as her last federal case resulted in praise and a medal as well as her decision to quit the bureau. Violence in a story of child abuse is unsurprising, but in this case, it’s neither prolonged nor graphic. In fact, the author writes with a skilled, confident hand and a lyricism that assuages the narrative’s grimmer content. The ambience, for example, is somber but beautiful: “All along the reservoir’s edge, a hazy October sunrise doused the fall colors of the trees in a preternatural gleam.” Even more intense moments have a noted vibrancy: “All-consuming panic exploded into an almost liberating darkness as she passed out.” Although the killer’s name isn’t immediately known (despite opening with a murder from the criminal’s perspective), readers will likely decipher the mystery in little time. But this doesn’t diminish the impact of the tale, which is more invested in Clara’s survival and perseverance. Likewise, there are unanticipated shocks, such as what Karen finds inside a coin bank. The story ends with finality while leaving the fate of a character or two fairly open.
A savage, gloomy murder tale that captivates with graceful prose and relentless protagonists.