Returning to live with his elderly parents in Promise Falls, New York, after a difficult few years in Boston, journalist David Harwood plans to start afresh with the local paper
(The Promise Falls Standard) then find a place for himself and son Ethan, nine, both adjusting to the loss in their family unit. Instead,
The Standard permanently closes its doors, Harwood now searching for employment in a depressed economy. Asked to visit his cousin, Marla, on an errand for his mother, Arlene, David is happy to check on a young woman who not only lost her baby while giving birth but tried to take one from the hospital while emotionally distraught. Fortunately, Marla’s mother, Agnes, is the administrator of Promise Falls General, smoothing over the incident without too much notoriety or an arrest. Arriving at Marla’s home, David is shocked to find his cousin caring for a baby:
Matthew, a child she claims was delivered to her door by “an angel.”
This is only the beginning of a tangled family drama that draws David into Marla’s world of loss and renewed hope. Unfortunately, when a local woman is found brutally murdered, her baby missing, Marla becomes the most likely suspect, especially with her troubled history. The murder investigation and Marla’s past, whatever it is, should fall to Barry Duckworth, an overweight, overworked detective, but David’s mother asks him to help Marla however he can.
The unemployed father begins a shadow investigation that not only parallels Duckworth’s but uncovers the perpetrator ahead of the law. It’s Harwood’s nature to be inquisitive.
Once he begins to unravel the threads of a nefarious plot, he cannot resist following it to the end, even when he uncovers criminal activity that points directly at his own family.
Barclay introduces a variety of characters to flesh out his plot, adding unexpected twists as the story evolves: ex-mayor Randal Finley, a disgraced politician considering another run
who offers Harwood a position; Jack Sturgess, the surgeon on staff at Promise Falls General who delivered Marla’s dead baby and is friends with Bill Gaynor, the now-grieving widower of the murdered woman; Sarita Gomez, the baby’s missing nanny who has not been seen since the day of the murder; Sarita’s boyfriend, an opportunist with a plan to start over if his newest scheme succeeds; and David’s aunt Agnes, a controlling, difficult woman whose attempts to protect her own interests are in constant conflict with her love for the troubled Marla.
In what often seems a bumbling investigation at the hands of the donut-craving Detective Duckworth is really built on solid work constantly stymied by an ineffective department. Duckworth’s progress paces but never overtakes David’s efforts, in spite of significant distractions: Marla’s dilemma, the elderly Harwoods' issues, and Ethan’s unhappiness at his new school. Meanwhile, incidents of violence escalate, circumstances dictating more extreme measures to avoid exposure. A “private” investigation being conducted on a local college campus causes more problems for the over-extended Duckworth.
A self-aggrandizing security chief attempts to trap a man accosting female students on campus without informing police of the problem,
but the faux investigation facilitates a fatal incident. The bits and pieces eventually point to a culprit and a resolution of Marla’s case, though there are other, more troubling details that force Duckworth to consider a larger problem.
Barclay uses a contemporary, sophisticated protagonist as his point man, Harwood straddling a serious investigation inspired by a journalism background, hampered by the folksy antics of a father and mother trying to adjust to the reality of aging. The ambiance shifts from deadly serious to near-comic family relations to the impulsive actions of desperate men making foolish decisions. The result is an awkward blend of crime fiction and family-centric fare, leaning toward a feel-good ending but suggesting more violence on the horizon. Many writers are adept at blending the idiosyncrasies of character and plot, but, for me, Barclay isn’t one of them.