Twenty years ago, college student Dani Lancing was brutally raped and murdered. The case has never been solved, her parents’ marriage failing under the grief and lack of resolution. Dani’s father, Jim, now sixty-four, frequently finds himself in conversation with his deceased daughter. Divorced from Patricia, his wife, Jim shuffles around the house, reliving painful memories, drifting between the past and the haunted present. Patty Lancing has given up her marriage and her career as an investigative reporter, obsessed with finding Dani’s killer. Her world telescoped into a solitary focus, she follows every new lead, no matter how obscure, papering her falls with crime scene photographs, building theories only to have them fall apart.
There’s a third member of this tragic trio: Dani’s high school sweetheart, Detective Tom Bevans, who heads an elite police squad investigating murders similar to Dani’s, trapped in a cycle of repeating tragedies, an existence that has earned him the nickname of “The Sad Man” in the department. Like Dani’s parents, Tom has been unable to let go of the past and move on to healthier pursuits, waiting for a break in a cold case. One finally comes in the form of a man’s disappearance, introducing another pivotal character into the mix—Marcus Keyson, a mercenary forensic investigator with his own agenda.
As Tom pursues a course of action that will lead to a stunning and troubling conclusion and Patty’s obsession propels her to more violent and dangerous actions in bringing her daughter’s killer to justice, Viner manipulates his characters to reveal both their strengths and weaknesses, the damage incurred by the loss of someone precious distorting their perceptions and ability to function. This is a study of the aftermath of crime as well as the solution to the death of Dani Lancing: the devastation of a mother and father who grapple with reality in far different ways, the drive of a detective who cannot shake the loss of a girl he has loved, and the accommodations they make to live with their private demons. Unfortunately, none of these characters, although ultimately tragic, inspires any empathy from this reader. I am oppressed by their lives from the start, burdened by the weight they carry an—let’s face it—unwilling to share that burden. I have no trouble burrowing into the dark recesses of the soul if a novel takes me there, but that writer must inspire my curiosity sufficiently to make that journey worthwhile. This leads me to a practice I try to avoid, including a SPOILER of sorts. I add it to my review it only because it was significant enough to affect my reaction the novel. Read further only if you choose to.
The idea of using a dead character to narrate the ensuing drama of a successful murder investigation worked well for a fairly recent popular novel—later made into a successful film—but any author attempting to recreate that scenario runs the risk of comparison. When I first realized that the twenty-years-dead Dani Lancing plays an active role in the unfolding tale of death and its aftermath, I was put off for a number of reasons even before delving into the plot of the novel. First, because the ploy is still too familiar in popular memory; second, because the writer has the advantage of inserting emotions and information that would otherwise have to be woven into the plot (facile); and third, because I find it profoundly irritating to be following the development of a “living” character only to have a dead person inserted into the situation, thus changing the context of the information and an assumption that such a phenomenon is realistic. Viner uses this shifting of time and reality throughout the novel (Uh, oh, here comes Dani to manipulate the actions of the primary characters again). Some readers may not be bothered by this conceit, but it completely spoiled my experience with The Last Winter of Dani Lancing, including my ability to care about any of these people or their lives. Too bad, because the characters, as presented sans Dani, are well-drawn.