A former pro golfer, high school teacher Mark Bradley’s life becomes a nightmare of suspicion and innuendo when a student’s diary is discovered by a suspicious mother. The diary describes a torrid love affair between Tresa Fischer and Bradley, the small town in Wisconsin on the Lake Michigan coast seething with the outrage of a community given to quick judgment and scant forgiveness, if at all. Mark’s wife, Hilary, believes her husband is innocent but can do nothing to stem the tide of gossip when Mark is fired from his teaching position. A year later, despite Fischer’s adamant denials and public declaration that the diary is fictitious, the whole town has turned against the couple. Now their remote Washington Island home only serves to further isolate Mark and Hilary from the cold stares of their few neighbors.
This is a place where area history runs deep, where generations have kept their secrets and cared for their own, shared tragedy cementing the silence of old grudges. As yet undecided whether to leave their beloved island home, Mark and Hilary attend a dance competition in Florida during Spring Break where some of Hilary’s former students are performing. Walking the beach on a sleepless night, Mark encounters Tresa’s younger sister, Glory, weaving drunkenly near the water, the girl determined to seduce Mark and experience what her sister’s journal described. Once again, Mark is in an untenable situation, extricating himself from an amorous girl, returning, shaken, to his bed with Hilary. The next morning, Glory’s body is found strangled on the beach. True to form, all eyes turn to Mark, suspicion once more rearing its head, even Hilary questioning her objectivity: “Doubt is like a genie you can’t put back in the box once it is free.”
Enter Cab Bolton: a well-heeled, urbane Florida detective who is unwilling to close the case without sufficient evidence that the right man will be charged with murder. Interviews with hotel guests lead to Mark - no surprise here - but Cab is an independent sort who travels from the steamy heat of Florida to the chill of Wisconsin to flesh out the facts with a more intimate understanding of these people and Mark’s apparent propensity for young women. What he finds at Washington Island is the crux of Freeman’s novel. Far from the sunny beaches and drunken revels of vacationers, this remote area shelters years of tragic events, bitter survivors and an entrenched vigilantism that extends even to the sheriff. Everyone is out for blood, and Mark is the target.
Obviously Mark is the straw man, though his inability to clearly define teacher-student boundaries has done little to improve his situation. Hair-trigger suspicions are easily embellished when young females are threatened in a rigidly moral community. The cast of characters expands to include a smarmy dance coach, an escaped arsonist with ties to the Fischer family, and Glory’s jealous boyfriend. The thriller begins with a harrowing scene, setting the stage for the later entanglements, but the plot fails to sustain the original promise of the prologue. While Mark does little to distinguish himself from certain guilt - an obvious plot device - the number of alternative suspects suggests more at work here than Glory’s murder. Freeman throws a lot against the wall and some of it sticks, making for a page-turner that, while not firmly grounded, is nevertheless entertaining.