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by Lori G. Armstrong
Medallion Press, November 2006
496 pages
ISBN: 1932815740

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I was born and raised on the prairies of southwestern North Dakota, just across the border from the Black Hills, so I was eager to take a look at HALLOWED GROUND. I’m so happy I did.

When I picked up HALLOWED GROUND, I didn’t know that Armstrong had been nominated for a Shamus Award for her first book, BLOOD TIES, or that HALLOWED GROUND would be nominated this year for the Shamus for Best Paperback Original. I just knew that I’d stumbled onto an author who can really, really write.

Julie Collins is a tough-talking, hard-loving woman who’s been learning the private investigator business from her friend and business partner, Kevin Wells. Kevin’s not around much when the book opens. He’s teetering on the edge of a serious breakdown as he cares for his dying wife and puts up with the demands of her querulous mother. His absence leaves Julie feeling shut out and burdened with the agency to run pretty much on her own.

When Tony Martinez walks into her office and asks Julie to investigate the disappearance of a five-year-old girl, Julie agrees. She’s not sure why Martinez, a notorious gang leader, has approached her with this case, but since it seems like a straightforward custody dispute, she figures she can handle it. She’s eager to get beyond the background checks Kevin’s had her working on, and besides, she’s strongly attracted to this very sexy bad-boy.

She takes off to track down the girl’s father, and finds him at a building site where he’s supervising the construction. He tells her that his daughter’s school contacted him after her mother, Rondelle, failed to pick her up, only one of many lapses in mothering on Rondelle’s part. And then, just as he begins to talk about the Carlucci family’s growing involvement in Black Hills gambling, a sniper kills him as he sits across a picnic table from Julie.

From there, the story explodes like a dynamite charge. Julie gets herself into some genuinely scary situations as she tries to figure out what’s really behind the man’s death and his daughter’s disappearance. On the way, we learn a lot about the casino scene in Deadwood, Native American tribal politics, the disruption brought to the ranchers and farmers who try to wrangle a living from the land and Julie’s own painful relationship with her father.

There are very few books around that do justice to the hard-scrabble life of farmers and ranchers on the Dakota prairies, and I’m very happy to say that Armstrong gets it just right. The sense of place is so vivid that you’ll smell the sun on the pine needles in Spearfish canyon. The Black Hills is heir to the legacies of the wild west – the Sioux Nation, Wild Bill and Calamity Jane, Custer, the desperate who grasped at mining as a way to strike it rich, and the farmers and ranchers who built the foundations of life as it now exists in Rapid City. Armstrong honors each of these lineages in her work.

The tight plotting and the masterful world-building in this book would be enough to make me love it. What makes me want to rave about it is the central character, Julie Collins. Armstrong has given us one of the most compelling female detectives in contemporary crime fiction in this tough yet fragile woman.

Her vulnerability over her brother’s death, her difficulties with her father, her deep yet complicated friendship with Kevin, coupled with sensible fear that doesn’t stand in the way of some pretty impulsive action all make Julie come alive in ways few writers ever achieve. And when she and Martinez look at each other, the heat of their attraction is the beginning of some of the best sex you’ll find in a detective story.

HALLOWED GROUND is one hell of a powerful story, full of twists and turns, and as exhilarating as riding a Harley down a Black Hills mountain road. Find this book. You’ll read it in one sitting and then go looking for everything else this talented writer has produced.

Reviewed by Carroll Johnson, October 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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