Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
A hard-hitting staccato plot starts in Oregon with a confusion of disconnected scenes. A man is beaten to a pulp on the shore of a lake. A former undertaker babbles drunkenly to a bartender, herself grieving over the death of her small son. An escaped convict awakes to unfamiliar surroundings.
Action switches to Denver, Colorado, and another drunk, mourning the death of her partner, but this barfly is FBI Special Agent Ren Bryce, a member of CARD, the Child Abduction Special Deployment team, and she is about to receive a call from her boss, Gary Dettling. There is an emergency in Oregon.
In the small town of Tate, a twelve-year-old boy has disappeared. After Bryce and Dettling arrive, that earlier confusion starts to make sense, although less so for the police than the reader; who has the advantage of grotesque glimpses into the mind and actions of that person beaten and left for dead on the shore of a lake [a lake where children drown, or die after falling through a rotting deck].
As with all closed communities in crime fiction – and not a few in real life –Tate has its share of secret nonconformists with pursuits that can be innocent or shocking, according to opinion, but sinister, even suspect, when children are involved. So, where the local police attributed recent young deaths to accident, the highly experienced incomers suspect murder as a matter of course, and emphasise the vital need to locate the missing twelve-year-old before he is found by a murdering paedophile.
The cops work well: the steady intelligent local sergeant and his redneck subordinate; philanderers among them making a foil for the savage Bryce who is clever, foul-mouthed and promiscuous. And there is Dettling, her harsh but ultimately protective mentor. All the characters are well-rounded and the dialogue comes rattling off the paper: heard as much as read. So, despite its perversions and muckiness, this is a page turner. There may be a niggling sense of disappointment in the method used by and in the denouement, but it disappears in the startling revelation of the killer’s identity.
And, as a rider, even the ravaged Bryce is redeemed on her road to Damascus, realising (in the words of her creator) that “all we can be is the best flawed human beings under the circumstances.” Odd wording but we get the message.