3.5 stars out of 5
This one started off like gangbusters. But about halfway through, my enthusiasm started to drop off, and by the end, I decided that my actual rating is 3.5 stars. The book is good enough, though, that I rounded up to 4 for the websites that don't allow half-stars; the story was well-written (if implausible in several places), and I'm sure many readers of murder mysteries/police procedurals will find lots to love about it.
In addition to an enticing description, I was intrigued because the story takes place in Cleveland - just over an hour's drive from my northeastern Ohio home and a city I've visited way too many times to count. It might, I figured, rank up there with the books from author Les Roberts, whose private investigator Milan Jacovich, who ranks high on my Top 10 list of favorite characters, lives and works in the city once dubbed the "mistake on the lake." Like Jacovich (and Roberts), I love the place - except maybe when we're driving on East 9th on a day the Indians or Browns are at home.
Sure enough, I got what I wanted in terms of setting; right from the start came references to loads of places familiar to me including University Circle, Terminal Tower, the Old Stone Church and the incomparable West Side Market (for that alone I thank the author and publisher, via NetGalley, for giving me an advance copy in exchange for a review). Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner makes her way, often on foot, in and around these places, initially as she tries to identify the body of a teenage girl who is found in an historic cemetery. Then, another body turns up, and another - and Maggie tries to connect the dots together with cohorts that include an ex-husband (he, BTW, doesn't play much of a role, making that relationship next to meaningless as far as anything in the story goes).
Also working with the department is sociologist Jack Renner, who first meets Maggie during a department meeting and then later on the downtown streets, where he entices her into a local pub for a bite to eat. She's not terribly impressed with him during either meeting, but she becomes more curious when some of the dots she's been chasing start to line up in his direction. What she doesn't know at first (but readers do, from the beginning), is that Jack is a killing machine. In fact, he's got an agenda close to the heart that hides his .22 revolver: Taking down, vigilante style, dastardly career criminals who have thus far managed to escape the prosecution he's convinced they deserve.
As much as anything, the book is a treatise on the age-old question of whether the end ever justifies the means. For Jack, the answer is crystal clear; Maggie, though, has a more difficult time making up her mind (and for that matter, so does Jack, although his agonizing leans more toward whether or not he cleaned up every droplet of blood or other trace evidence that could lead to his identity).
And therein lies is the reason I didn't give the book a higher rating. If I had a quarter for every drawn-out "what if," "why should/shouldn't I," "did I or didn't I," "maybe he's thinking this or maybe that" coming from the two of them, I'd easily have enough to buy a pre-game dinner for two at the House of Blues on Euclid Avenue.
Of course, I won't reveal anything about how the investigation proceeds or ends or Maggie's much-overthought conclusions, although I will say there seems to me to be a probability that she and Jack will be reunited and this is the first of a series. If that happens, I hope all the extraneous (to me) mental "stuff" will be absent and the focus will turn more toward serious character development. But in any event, I'm more than willing to give the pair another go. Bring 'em on.
That Darkness by Lisa Black (Kensington, April 2016); 336 pp.