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Following less than a year after the introductory novel in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries Series, this book was easy to welcome, given the huge promise of the first. Authors Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan team up again, as do their characters Trooper Leigh Abbott and Dr Matt Lowell, to sift through the minutiae of fragmentary evidence in the aftermath of a fatal fire which quickly turns out to be both arson and murder. Seeking both the identity of the dead woman and that of the arsonist/murderer, Leigh and Matt are drawn into a spooky Halloween world of tourists and witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. And before they can make much headway in either tangled direction, there is another, much larger fire which destroys an old Catholic Church and again covers a murder, this time of a parish priest. The struggle to connect the two crimes and the impossibility of considering them separately add another dimension to the forensic search for clues and the police procedural side of the effort.
In the midst of the anxiety about whether this is turning into a series of crimes (an idea fanned into flame by an ambitious and imaginative local newspaper reporter), Leigh is blindsided by a personal attack in the form of a copy of a death scene photograph of her father which claims on its back that he was not the hero everyone thinks he was but instead a corrupt policeman and that she will suffer when the truth about him is known. Because this photo is part of the police investigative evidence packet held in police files, Leigh has to believe that there is someone in her unit who is trying to destroy her.
The combination of a bright state trooper with an eminently skilled forensic scientist is an excellent variation and once again, Danna and Vanderlaan lean on their own extensive forensic backgrounds and willingness to seek advice (from police and fire departments, for instance) to pull together a complex and fascinating tale.
Problematically, what was hinted at in the first novel appears to be building, and much too quickly, in the second. This is the relationship between Leigh and Matt which might be viewed as a romance if it weren't for the fact that we are very clearly told up front that it is only a matter of three or four weeks since the two were successful in solving the crimes of the first novel. Although aware of each other peripherally well before then, that investigation was the first time that they had really gotten acquainted and worked closely together. The problem I see is that in four weeks we have moved from obvious attraction to groping each other on a public street. My immediate reaction was that these two adults (at least chronologically) were behaving like a pair of thirteen-year-olds behind a dumpster. But I was wrong. The thirteen-year-olds had the decency to go behind the dumpster.
And this need for instant and selfish gratification opens up a can of worms that I seriously hope Danna and Vanderlaan might consider:
1) If Leigh and Matt cannot keep their hands off each other until they have some privacy, how am I supposed to believe that either of them has the self-discipline, focus, or incredible patience necessary for work in forensics? And why is what these two authors can imagine about sex better than what the reader can imagine? Robert B. Parker's Spenser and his beloved Susan Silverman have a clearly healthy and active sexual relationship but Parker never violates his characters' privacy by making the readers watch. The hallmark of his incredibly successful series is the deep affection and strict respect that he pays to these persons he has created.
2) In the first novel Matt suffered from post traumatic stress disorder from his hideous experiences in the military and Leigh tried seducing him to make him feel better – in this second novel, four weeks later, the PTSD has disappeared and we are supposed to believe that a sexual relationship with Leigh has caused a miraculous cure – oh, perhaps the military should be told of this fantastic approach!
These are really good writers and this could – might? – turn into a mystery series well worth following. But somebody – authors? editors? – has to get a grip on what's happening to it and refocus, reconsider, and redirect. I love the beginning but I am leery of the development.
§ 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, March 2014
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