Dr. Paul Osborne is a dentist in Loon Lake, Wisconsin, a small town that supports itself on the spending habits of tourists who love to fish and on the wages from a paper mill. Taking early retirement from his practice, Osborne had intended to spend his golden years occupied with his most enjoyable hobbies, hunting and fishing. It had not been his intention to become, without warning, a widower. And after his wife’s death, steeped in grief, he became a flaming alcoholic.
Now the grief that sent him spiraling into the bottle was not from losing the love of his life. Several years into his marriage, Osborne discovered that he did not like the person his wife, Mary Lee, had become. Perhaps she had been that type of person all along, shielding her true nature from him by conscious intent, but she was now a social climber and a status seeker. She lived for the parties, the “things” she possessed and the life she plotted for her oldest child. And she was an inveterate nag, with Osborne the most frequent target of her displeasure.
So when Mary Lee died unexpectedly, there was no more nagging, no more social pressure, and the children were gone in more ways than one. Love, affection and friendship had long since fled from Osborne’s life, leaving only pride, loyalty and responsibility to hold his part of the relationship together. While Osborne’s practice, his hunting and his fishing had been effective shields against his wife’s greed and rancor, now there was nothing for them to shield him from.
Thus, Paul Osborne was lost. Nothing he had done for the last 30 years to survive his legal and religious vows needed doing anymore. And the shame he felt for being glad it was over engulfed him. Fortunately, that pity-party didn’t last long. After an early intervention by his youngest daughter and after several very productive months in rehab, Osborne came back, loving life, drinking ginger ale, and especially loving his fishing.
Now, with the slip of a foot in a roiling river while night fishing, the past threatens to come roaring back. Osborne has stumbled, quite literally, on the submerged body of Meredith Marshall, the younger sister of Alicia Roderick, his dead wife’s best friend and fellow bully.
At the time he discovers the body, Osborne is taking his first refresher fly-fishing lesson from Lew Ferris, the newly minted Loon Lake Chief of Police. The nickname “Lew” is short for “Lewellyn” and she is everything Osborne’s wife wasn’t. She is attractive but not beautiful, strongly built and comfortably dressed rather than fashionable. She achieved her position in life through determination rather than through money and social bullying, in spite of a divorce and the death of one of her three children. She has even more intelligence and knowledge of human nature than she has competence with fly-fishing – and she is an expert in that field.
Finding a cracked skull but not enough bruising to account for the current’s speed and the rocky river bottom, Osborne suspects the death is not an accident. When he determines that every gold filling has been removed from her mouth, he knows it’s not. Knowing Osborne’s background in forensics and with the town’s incompetent coroner on vacation, Lew immediately deputizes Osborne to help with the case.
This first entry in the Loon Lake series could probably be classified as a cozy. While there are several murders, accomplished by some rather inventive means, we are spared the overly graphic, splashy (no pun intended) details. This book is not about gore or titillation or shock value. This novel is centered more on ethics, family dynamics, small-town secrets and societal expectations, or the lack thereof, with murder as the major dynamic and vehicle.
This first entry in the series could also fall into the romantic suspense genre. But don’t expect hot steamy sex. There is not one single sex scene, not one single kiss, not even the holding of hands. But there is serious interest on Osborne’s part concerning Lew, who is easily more than a decade younger. He tries not to be obvious or overt about his burgeoning feelings, but his daughters and his best friend and neighbor, Ray Pradt, are not fooled. Lew plays it just as close to the vest as Osborne does, but you can practically feel her personal interest sliding right in there with her respect for his investigative skills. They play off each other well when dealing with both suspects and theories and the reader can sense the team that is being formed, both personally and professionally.
Although written in third person, Houston makes it clear that Osborne is the main protagonist. The only internal monologues and descriptive observations are from his standpoint. And because Osborne’s view is all we have, the suspense in this “cozy” ratchets up page by page. While the identities of the villains are relatively easy for the reader to pinpoint by about half way through the book, the task of proving it is not so quick and easy. And the last 20% of the book contains several scenarios that will suck your breath away from fear and wondering who will survive and how well they will survive.
I truly enjoyed the gradual but thorough buildup of the characters’ personalities and the systematic way in which the author builds the tension. I also enjoyed that Houston used a blend of backstory and present circumstances to get us invested in the lives of the vulnerable Osborne, the intriguing Lew and the eccentric but highly versatile Ray. I even enjoyed the way that Houston tied the techniques of fly-fishing to the techniques of police work and people-handling.
What I didn’t enjoy were the editing errors and the poor formatting. This book was published in 2000, fourteen years ago as I write this review. It appears that, when this book was translated into e-format, the translation didn’t go too well and has never been updated. The most obvious formatting problem is that the text is not fully justified. Therefore, the irregularly shaped white areas in the right margin are distracting and wreak havoc on flow of consciousness, especially when a character’s dialogue encompasses more than one paragraph.
The editing errors include misspelled words, missing words, repeated words, and jumbled word combinations that make no logical sense. And these errors occur frequently enough to break the natural flow of reading, causing an internal comment of “Do what?” These errors appear to be rooted in technology rather than in ignorance of the rules of grammar and sentence construction, but they still present a poor impression of the author’s attention to final detail in the finished product.
Regardless of these technical difficulties, Houston has presented us with a well-crafted and intriguing mystery, with a realistic denouement, that holds great promise for the rest of the series. And it is quite refreshing to read a tale in which the protagonists are middle-aged instead of being young guns, who are competent and trained in their chosen fields rather than being prodigies, and who are average in appearance rather than being inordinately handsome or beautiful.
It is also a breath of fresh air to encounter protagonists who are essentially happy, who have a healthy, positive and realistic attitude toward life rather than being wounded, brooding, angry and defensive at every turn. They are good people, who have faced bad circumstances, and who have come out battered for a time, but not broken. They are literally and figuratively the people next door, and Houston has formulated a premise which, for me, is worth the time and money to pursue.
Cover Art From Goodreads