Grimm’s fairy tales inspire Emily Littlejohn’s second thriller featuring Detective Gemma Monroe. Gemma has recently come back to work at Colorado’s Cedar Valley Police Department after giving birth to her new baby, Grace. In a narrative that echoes the best literary mysteries, Gemma suffers the consequences of the department’s night shift, where the long hours have left behind a certain kind of tension: “I thought I was ready to be back, but all of a sudden, I didn’t feel so sure.” For the moment, at least, Gemma finds comfort in motherhood and the presence of her long-term boyfriend, Brody. She’s hesitant to commit to marriage, certain that it will somehow “place a snag" in the trust she and Brody have built up over the last few years.
Gemma's loyal colleague Finn helps get her through the darkest snow-driven days, assisting Gemma in uncovering secrets, finding evidence, and pursuing the guilty. A Season to Lie is set in early February, when the peak of winter darkness has come early. In whiteout conditions, Gemma and Finn are called to the Valley Academy, an elite private school. At the edge of the black forest, they discover the body of a dead man skewered to a rotting aspen tree, a large hunting knife protruding from his belly; “The knife, the rotted tree: it’s like a sick piece of art.”
Littlejohn’s plot builds into a risky investigation of the victim: famous author Delaware Fuente. As a detective in a small town, Gemma is unafraid to follow the breadcrumbs of the case and tackle the forces that will dictate the next steps. Found with a black patch over his eye and a thick salt-and-pepper beard, Fuente’s death is messy--a bestselling author found dead in the middle of a blizzard and in the middle of nowhere. Nothing about this seems random, and Gemma has only vague idea of what might have contributed to Fuente’s final moments. Cedar Valley isn’t exactly in the national spotlight, so why here at the Academy?
Gemma interviews Bowie Childs, the security guard who first discovered the body, as well as Fuente’s literary agent on the phone from New York, but neither can shed light on who might have killed the man. The academy was too random, too convenient a place for murder. Who but a local would have known about the footpath that ran along the side of the school? Perhaps the killer wanted them to find the body and the note, left in Fuente’s mouth, which also suggests there are more murders to come.
In frustration, Gemma turns to Lila Conway, Fuente’s best friend, who lives in a ramshackle fairy-tale cabin out in the woods. A teacher at the Valley Academy, Lila suffers from extreme shyness. She’s a loner who saves things, “damaged things like wounded baby animals and sad, friendless students.” Lila was upset; she and Fuente were close. She was also the only person who knew that Fuente was in town. As Gemma tries to unlock the pieces of the puzzle, it strikes her how strange it is that Lila lives so isolated and so alone. Here in the woods, it feels different--as though a sickness has crowded the trees, a “sickness or fear.” What path had Delaware Fuente’s life taken him on? According to Lila, he was on sabbatical to immerse himself in his memoirs. But why kill a random lecturer? Was it a horrible occurrence, a mugging gone wrong? Finn believes someone lured Fuente to the Academy: “they lured him or drove him there and killed him.” In the dead of winter, isolated by the weather, perhaps someone out there is about to embark on a killing spree.
The secret at the heart of this character-driven novel changes the course of many lives. From the “Rabbit Man,” a ghost in the woods who appears to terrify Lila, and student Denny Little, who talks of strange spells cast on his classmates, to a group called the Black Hounds--strangers who have come to town and brought with them shadows that darken the edges--Littlejohn creates a shadowy, spreading darkness that eventually looms larger than Fuente himself, threatening to swallow everything in its path. While the details of Gemma’s personal life and the other characters in her orbit add depth to the thriller, what sets the sinister plot in motion is the identity of young man in a photograph, a “wee child lured away by fairies,” and the ruminations of a vulnerable boy in a wheelchair, terrified of someone called Grimm.
Mystery elements aside, Littlejohn’s novel explores Gemma’s personal relationships and the challenges she faces in small-town policing. The author does a wonderful job exploring the bonds of friendship and loyalty, a reflection of Gemma’s own life struggles. What defines a family and where does loyalty lie? A Season to Lie is yet another addictive read, one that I didn't want to put down and finished far too quickly. I anxiously await book number three in this exciting series.