Well known for her Anna Pigeon mysteries, Nevada Barr offers a standalone thriller in
13 1/2 (“One judge, twelve jurors, half a chance.”). The back story is grotesque but inspired by an actual event: an eleven-year-old boy convicted of murdering his entire family, mother, father and little sister, only his older brother, Richard, left severely wounded. Sentenced to juvenile hall in Minnesota until his maturity, Dylan Raines understands what he has done but struggles not to remember so heinous a crime. Only Richard’s visits keep Dylan from despair.
Meanwhile, in Mississippi, Polly Farmer escapes a terrible family situation, fleeing her mother’s trailer for the open road, headed to New Orleans, where she will begin another life and give birth to two daughters. From Minnesota and Mississippi to post-Katrina New Orleans, the lives of these people converge, Richard and Dylan Raines taking the names of Danny and Marshall Marchand. Certainly, New Orleans is a place to reinvent oneself. And as a restoration architect, Dylan/Marshall sees an opportunity for redemption.
Unfortunately, the past is not so easily put to rest. With Danny/Richard’s help, Marshall contains the nightmare of his past, but falling in love with Polly threatens everything Marshall has worked for, recurring dreams haunting “The Butcher Boy” of years earlier. Marshall is afraid - not without good reason - that he might repeat the crimes of his youth.
Barr faces considerable hurdles making this plot gel, answering troubling questions of time and circumstance, Marshall’s repressed memories securely locked in his subconscious. But what if he is a monster, a devious murderer? What if his love for Polly has awakened all the old demons and set them free to kill again?
Switching between Minneapolis and contemporary New Orleans, Barr reveals Dylan’s traumatic years of incarceration as a juvenile, the cruel psychologist determined to make a boy relive the horrors of his crime, and an unexpected (unrealistic?) release from the criminal justice system. In spite of the violence, the early years are more believable than the false world of New Orleans, where Marshall’s love interest is the ultimate “Pollyanna” complete with Southern charm and beguiling mannerisms.
I had my suspicions from the first and was interested to see how Barr might navigate the problem of family-murderer released upon the world. The relationship between brothers is even more challenging, especially when Polly becomes part of the dynamic. While I appreciate the concept, the execution is clumsy, not up to Barr’s usual standards. Lots of blood and gore, but not enough consistency.