In her first novel, Littlejohn delivers a compelling thriller centering on Detective Gemma Monroe. In the small Colorado town of Cedar Valley, a vibrant place of “travelling circuses, seedy fairgrounds and age-old family secrets,” three brutal murders are tied to the legend of The Woodsman. Gemma, like many of the townsfolk, remains haunted by the images of two children--the McKenzie cousins, just two years apart--who disappeared in the summer of 1985. The boys’ unsolved murder has defined Cedar Valley; many unanswered questions still continue to take root in people’s hearts. The Woodsman murders are just as much a part of Cedar Valley’s culture as the ski chalets and hiking trails.
Twenty-seven years after the events of 1985, Gemma once again finds herself at the center of a new murder investigation. In one of the hottest August days on record, all are oblivious to the newest spectacle at the Fellini Brother’s Circus: the discovery of
18-year-old Reed Tolliver lying dead in a pool of his own blood. It appears as though the poor kid’s throat has been brutally thrashed. First on the scene is chief forensic specialist Ravi Hussen, who tells Gemma that the blood and destruction were most likely caused by a terrible, pent-up rage.
Although Gemma is pleased when her boss, Chief of Police Angel Chavez, tells her to lead the case, Gemma doesn’t relish the notion of descending into the orbit of Cedar Valley’s powerful mayor, Terence Bellington, a man who had high political aspirations until it was revealed that he had cancer. Still, together with her loyal colleagues, Finn Nowlin and Sam Birdshead
(“fresh meat” rookie from Denver), Gemma plunges into the inquiry, desperately trying to sort through the details of Reed Tolliver, only to learn that his life was riddled with secrets and lies. Shouldering the stress of being six months pregnant--and with Bellington about to breathe down her neck “every step of the way,” Gemma is forced to balance her investigative skills against
the “political shit storm” that is going to hit if she doesn’t wrap the case up nice and neat.
A surprise revelation involving Reed’s true identity brings Gemma and her team directly into the trajectory of the Bellington family and the mystery surrounding their son, Nicky, who disappeared after a tragic slip and fall three years previously. Are the two incidents connected? As Gemma’s thoughts dance between two big questions, she comes to the realization that murder is usually never as complicated as it first seems. Who might have killed Nicky, and what really happened on that beautiful July day? Both Gemma and Finn wonder how Nicky’s supposed death connects to Reed Tolliver,
the McKenzie boys, and the other tragedy that rocked Cedar Valley in August 1985: the discovery of a woman’s body snagged in reeds in the Arkansas River.
In deliberative, beautiful prose, Littejohn crafts a story that is as much about the feisty, gutsy Gemma as about the murder mystery. As the investigation progresses, Gemma
is haunted by dreams and nightmares. Bit by bit, a portrait starts to emerge centering on Ellen, Terence Bellington’s beautiful wife. As “cold as an arctic queen,” Ellen is still anxious to find her long-lost son
even as she assuages her daughter, Annika, whom Gemma suspects knows more about
Nicky’s disappearance than she initially lets on. Meanwhile, Reed’s girlfriend, Tessa--feisty, driven, and beautiful--can shed little light on Reed’s final moments.
Neither can Tessa’s friend, the furious, perpetually stoned Red, who points the finger at Darren Chase, the basketball coach at Cedar Valley high school.
The implication is that there was something more to his relationship with Nicky than strictly coaching. Tessa confides to Gemma how Reed went to extreme measures to change his appearance--the tattoos, the piercings, and the hair dye--yet clearly Reed was a boy who didn’t or couldn’t change his personality.
With only her dog, Seamus, for company, Gemma remains plagued by the people
in Nicky and Reed’s lives, characters who circle her thoughts like “like vultures in the sky.” As Gemma digs deep into her past, she remembers the afternoon she and her husband discovered the bones of the McKenzie boys.
She has spent the last four years living in the shadow of The Woodsman:
“everywhere I turned seemed to point right back to the past, to the Mackenzie
boys and to The Woodsman.” Gemma’s dreams seem to provide clues, haunting her three or four times a week,
and she finds herself hijacked by a creepy, mysterious stalker.
Writing with the competence of a veteran mystery author, Littejohn fashions her hero in the same vein as retired FBI agent Brigid Quinn of the Becky Masterson series. Both women are outsiders, driven by their relentless and likely self-righteous pursuit of “putting the bad guys away.” As the narrative rushes along, full of Gemma’s messy but principled choices, the invisible lines of paternity
and the invisible strains of legacy are eventually tested in a tale literally drenched in the bonds of dark family secrets and frail blood.