Before He Finds Her
Michael Kardos
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Buy *Before He Finds Her* by Michael Kardosonline

Before He Finds Her
Michael Kardos
Mysterious Press
384 pages
February 2015
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In a novel brimming with a page-turning plot, depth of character, and gutsy, raw writing, journalist Arthur Goodale sits close to death while writing on his laptop from his hospital bed. He tells us about the terrible tragedy that occurred in 1991 in the fishing village of Silver Bay. At an outdoor block party, after the guests had all gone, an inebriated Ramsey brutally murders his lovely wife, Allison. The next day, the authorities find her body in the backyard. Neither Ramsey or Meg--their baby daughter--is ever seen again. Also never found is the boat that Ramsey was rumored to have fled in. Did Ramsey commit both murders? Did one horrible deed make the other? There was no motive and no history of violence, and Ramsey was considered a devoted husband and father. He once had several run-ins with the law, but he’d long since put that lifestyle behind him.

For years Ramsey’s whereabouts, assuming he’s still alive, are unknown. Yet Ramsey’s ghost is a haunting presence, one that defines the novel and shapes the life of Melanie, who in 2006 lives in Fredonia, West Virginia, with her loving Uncle Wayne and Aunt Kendra, who are always at her side. Melanie has little knowledge of her past other than the horrible letters from the U.S. Marshal’s Office that Wayne has tried to keep hidden from her. The letters--a sad story of botched opportunities and administrative detachment--tell how Ramsey Miller has continued to elude the authorities and how they continue to fear for Melanie’s safety.

Melanie wants to be a journalist, but Wayne says she can’t, at least until her father is caught; he’s positive that Ramsey is still a threat. Fredonia is all Melanie knows, with her small house hidden on a deserted road, itself hidden in a small town in this remote part of West Virginia. Melanie holds dear to the sacrifices her aunt and uncle have made to keep her safe. Hoping that he might be the key to a fresh start, she confesses her past to her boyfriend, Phillip. Clearly this is a girl in crisis long before she ever gains the confidence to step foot outside her childhood home.

In a clear prose, Kardos builds his narrative around the alternative voices of Ramsey and Melanie, tunneling us back into the events leading up to Allison’s murder and capturing Melanie's essence as she tries to piece together the hard evidence that her father is still out there causing trouble, perhaps even watching her. Like a teenager freed from expectations, the insular Silver Bay beckons. Leaving a note for Wayne and Kendra, telling them that she’s going on a field trip, Melanie travels to the terrible, blood-stained place where Ramsey committed murder and where her mother was burned.

In Silver Bay, Melanie is overwhelmed from the start, vaguely resentful at her situation but determined to get to the truth. Alone in her hotel room, she comforts herself with the too-large bed and the smell of industrial cleaning products, at first feeling lost and hopeless, again terrified that her father is always just “beyond the hedges and always around the next corner.” Drawing on courage that she didn’t know she possessed, Melanie puts her journalistic talents to the test, learning all she can from Arthur about the Miller killings and the tenuous connection to her past that she aches to severe.

Kardos fleshes out Ramsey’s life, from his youth as a drifter with no real aspirations to his meeting Allison and his eventual job as a lorry driver, to his responsible acceptance of life as a middle-class family man and father. From the neon-lit bars just off the interstate stinking “of piss and sawdust” to the pounded shots of well whiskey, Ramsey is on the road but also constantly on edge, sometimes thinking that he only has “half a marriage” to Allison. This twist of fate causes Ramsey to wonder at the high cost of his luck and whether his life with Allison is the one he desires after all.

As the novel builds to the devastating night of the block party, Kardos heightens the dramatic impact of the closing chapters. Melanie leads the investigative charge; from Arthur’s beside to the salubrious offices of TV weatherman David Magruder, she’s unyielding in her pursuit of the truth even as she fights to hold onto her battered relationship with Phillip.

Writing at the speed of life and giving his characters time to think and react just as we do in real situations, Kardos tells a distinctly American story: of a young man’s rebellious, unpredictable nature, and of an embattled girl who must eventually work to peel back the distraught layers of her own complicated past.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2015

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