In Gallagher’s (The Money Doctor’s Guide to Taking Care of Yourself When No One Else Will, 2005, etc.) thriller, an ex–volunteer sheriff and former head of a business school searches for an animal hunting community members but finds himself the target of an escaped convict.
When a severed hand is found in Harmony Lakes, Texas, volunteer fire department Chief Mark Hunter deduces that the victim is his friend Billy. Both Mark and law enforcement suspect an accident or an animal attack—alligator, python, maybe even Big Foot—but soon realize that there could be a human killer on the loose. In particular, prison escapee Leroy Payne, who was serving a 25-year stint for murdering his abusive father, blames Mark for his incarceration. Gallagher’s novel has an unmistakable religious theme: Mark, a devout believer, often reads biblical passages; there are a few snake attacks; the giant gator, which readers find out early on is the killer, is more than once referred to as a “demon”; and Mark even performs an impromptu exorcism on someone apparently possessed. Fortunately, the religious bent is aptly integrated without engulfing the story; most noticeably, Mark and his equally religious wife, Reggie, are burdened with human flaws. Reggie, it seems, is jealous of any woman who has contact with Mark, and her husband, upon hearing of the man who tried to force himself on Reggie, threatens to castrate and kill the aggressor. Numerous subplots run throughout the narrative, and Gallagher excels at giving them solid coverage—perhaps too well, since the two main plots sit on the sidelines during a funeral, Mark’s counseling a rich widow whose husband was a pal, an attempt to blackmail a community mogul, and, for good measure, an affair and suicide. The treatment of female characters is a bit antiquated, too: Reggie is a housewife who always has dinner ready; a professional woman, Dr. Candace Thompson, brought in for her expertise in reptiles, does little more than turn men’s heads and incite Reggie’s envy; and Rodé, given a fascinating background as a bareback rider and the first female rodeo announcer in Texas, is now merely Mark’s secretary. It’s difficult not to cringe when Mark mockingly praises her with a pat on the head, even if it’s in jest.
The array of storylines almost turns the novel into a soap opera, but a decisively good one, and the presence of alligators and angry killers will satisfy genre fans.