Dead Creek

Dead Creek_VictoriaHouston_861563

THE EVIL ANGELS

4 STARS

I just love it when the main protagonist of a novel discovers the body in the first chapter. There is nothing like getting right down to business. In fact, Paul Osborne actually finds four bodies, all stuffed in a large wire shipping crate anchored below the surface of a creek.

Chief of Police Lew Ferris is halfway across the country testifying in a case while taking a bit of vacation and the coroner is ill. So it falls upon Paul, Lew’s deputy, Roger, and the former chief, John Sloan, to begin the investigation. Upon initial examination, Paul believes that he is working with the bodies of three men and a woman. Having been both a practicing and a forensic dentist for over 30 years, he is an expert in cranial construction. Therefore, he is more than a little surprised to find that the one with the female skull is actually a male, albeit a male that is missing the testes and missing them naturally, not by surgery.

With this setup, Victoria Houston walks us into the living nightmare of four siblings poisoned from the moment of conception by industrial chemicals dumped into their family’s water supply. Loon Lake had been the site of a paper mill for many years, long before environmental laws made it illegal to dump effluent into the creeks these plants were invariably built beside. Part of the land surrounding this defunct mill was eventually sold to a couple that wanted to live in the backwoods, off the grid.

The wife suffered multiple miscarriages before having a daughter and then a set of triplets, two boys and a girl. The parents knew from the physical appearance of the children that something was desperately wrong. And they knew that the natural aging process couldn’t account for how they physically felt either. When the triplets were only five months old, a neighbor made a welfare check on the family a few days after the father told him about the “evil angels” that were their children. Finding the children alive but the parents dead by suicide, the neighbor placed the triplets with the local convent and adopted the older girl himself.

Although the children were removed from the backwoods to a more urban area with medical facilities, nothing could reverse the damage. The paper mill had dumped a chemical that was, in reality, a synthetic superestrogen. By absorbing the chemical through their drinking water and through the flesh of the fish they caught in the same waters, that chemical had caused a genetic mutation in the children at the cellular level.

The bottom line was that the children actually suffered from two irreversible effects. First, they had the correct gender chromosomes but only a partially correct reproductive system. Secondly, the males under-produced testosterone, never achieving puberty and developing a feminine bone structure. And the females overproduced it, entering puberty early and developing a hirsute, masculine frame.

Fortunately, regardless of how badly their bodies had betrayed them, each child was of above average intelligence. Each child grew up to be an expert in their respective chosen professions and, with one exception, are quite well off financially. Three of the children were adopted by local families and have been able to maintain a relationship into adulthood. And now, one of the four siblings, the one Paul Osborne thought was a woman, is dead in that submerged cage.

Victoria Houston has crafted quite a convoluted mystery in this second entry of her Loon Lake series. In addition to our main three, Paul, Lew and Ray, there are a slew of characters to keep straight. And because of the multiple adoptions, there are multiple name changes to keep track of. But Houston puts the clues out there for the reader, chapter by chapter. However, the full scope of the treachery and psychosis involved here does not crystalize until almost 80% of the story is complete. So don’t be surprised if you change your mind as to the identity of the murderer several times after this point.

And, for a cozy, that remaining 20% of the book is terrifying. Unfortunately, the resolution of the crisis borders on a deus ex machina. However, Houston has structured the character of Ray Pradt in such a manner that you can almost believe it could happen that way – almost.

Speaking of Ray Pradt, Houston gives us a great deal more insight into his character and his background in this novel. We also learn considerably more about Paul, his marriage to his now-deceased wife, and his growing feelings for Lew. What we don’t get is any real insight into Lew. After two novels we know what she looks like, we know how she functions as a cop, we know about her expertise as a fisherman, and we suspect we know how she feels about Paul. But we have almost no backstory for her at all; her past is almost a cipher.

Again, as in the first novel, we observe all the action from Paul’s viewpoint. And, again, as in the first novel, we have a high degree of romantic tension with no overt sexual action. However, Paul is a shy man who believes he is too old for Lew. So, for now, friendship and fishing will just have to do. And with this unresolved conflict, Houston sets the hook (no pun intended).

Cover Art From Goodreads

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