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by Sara Driscoll
Kensington, September 2017
304 pages
ISBN: 1496704436

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

An FBI K-9 novel set in the Washington D. C. area, BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE opens with the first in a horrific series of murders that cause the victims to suffer slowly over time until they finally expire. FBI Headquarters at Quantico receives a coded message found attached to the collar of a dog trained to protect and comfort its owner who suffers from PTSD. The dog was found wandering and the owner is missing. Oddest of all is that the message is addressed clearly to Special Agent Meg Jennings for no reason that anyone can imagine. Once the coded part of the message is deciphered (painfully slowly because it needs a keyword the FBI does not have), it is recognized as a mysterious clue set in a sort of riddle:

“Find her before she dies. Come to Washington's house in Alexandria. The clock is ticking on her life.”

Only by sheer luck do Meg and her partner Brian and their dogs Hawk and Lacey get called to try a location different from the other half of their team – they had all been racing to George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, near Alexandria when their boss Craig turned them instead toward the house Martha Washington's grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, gave to his son in law Robert E. Lee. This now sits in the middle of Arlington Cemetery. It turns out that the name of the county was changed from Alexandria to Arlington to avoid confusion with the city of Alexandria.

The forewarned staff of the cemetery has cleared it of all persons except the soldier at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Meg and Brian enter and head in opposite directions to cover the enormous space as quickly and efficiently as possible. Hawk is the dog who finds the victim. She has been buried alive in a section of new burials in a grave that had taken the body of a serviceman just that afternoon and had not yet been sodded. Meg calls Brian as Hawk starts digging frantically and Lacey joins him in the hole he's made while Meg and Brian find shovels in a truck and also begin to help.

Later, near midnight, when Meg and Hawk finally get home to eat, clean up, and sleep, Craig calls again. Another message has come in to Headquarters. Another woman has been abducted and is dying. And, worse, she was the first victim, taken two days ago – the message in her service dog's collar wasn't noticed right away and it's also addressed to Meg and it's also in code.

Meg Jennings is a fascinating tangle of needs and wants and duty and author Sara Driscoll has had a field day playing one off against the other two and juggling the mix again and again. Of course the short-range need is to save the victim's life. And, of course the long-range need is to figure out who this crackpot is and stop him. Meg's psychology and her training make her as eager as her dog Hawk to rush to the rescue, something that becomes more and more of an overwhelming want. At the same time, Meg and Hawk are employed by the FBI as part of an intricately built team which has both structure and hierarchy, and Meg is responsible for staying in the FBI pattern.

The complications arise as Meg realizes that the murderer is symbolically killing her over and over again – all of his victims look like her and her sister Cara – and slowly she comes to understand that her whole family is threatened. The temptations to step out of the pattern come one after another and this turmoil added to the crimes being committed force the pace of the novel relentlessly.

Probably the greatest strength of this author's approach is her deep understanding of the relationship between a person and his or her service dog, and this strength keeps the novels in this series from ever coming anywhere near the sort we would call a cozy.

I was disappointed in the villain when we finally got him unmasked. He just didn't seem bright enough or disciplined enough to have mounted such a campaign of terror. But I suspect I might feel the same way about a lot of criminals. Maybe what makes them appear intelligent lies in our difficulty in figuring out what's going on.

§ Diana Borse is retired from teaching English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and savoring the chance to read as much as she always wanted to.

Reviewed by Diana Borse, October 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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