When Nora Hamilton discovers her cop husband Brendan dead of an apparent suicide in the home they share in the small town of Wedeskyull, NY, the police force she has long trusted quickly rallies around her. But as the unlikelihood of his suicide nags at her, Nora begins to question the omnipotence of third-generaton police chief Vern Weathers, known to everyone simply as Chief, and his band of loyal officers–including the trigger-happy Club Mitchell and the aptly if obviously named Tim Lurquer.
Bombarded by questions about Brendan’s past, Nora must face how little she really knew about him. Much of the plot hinges on the death of Brendan’s little brother in a tragic accident when Brendan was just a child. The description of the aftermath of the child’s death, perceived through photographs at a distance of more than two decades by Nora, who never knew him, is brilliantly and chillingly executed.
Readers may be puzzled by Nora’s lack of curiosity, which, though key to the plot, sometimes feels strained. It seems implausible that she would never have heard about the worst and most talked-about tragedy the town ever suffered, particularly when her own husband was at the center of it. It’s a minor complaint, however, in what ultimately is a very compelling mystery.
Milchman excels in unexpected moments, such as when she describes Nora’s sister’s stiflingly hot New York City apartment:
Teggie’s bedroom was as sweltering as the cramped rest of her apartment. I went back to the bed, crawled across it, and tugged at a window. It opened with a sticky separation of paint, and the volume of the city instantly increased.
The author clearly knows the frozen landscape that serves as backdrop to her story. The characters are frequently seen sliding down banks of ice, scraping it off their windows, or hiking over hills of snow. Milchman masterfully describes the ice-bound setting in the way that only someone who truly lives it can. Like the best Nordic crime thrillers, the novel succeeds in making you feel very, very cold.
Milchman also displays a keen eye for character. Characters who might be mere plot devices in a lesser thriller are thoughtfully rendered here. There is Chief, who rules over the town like a not-always-benevolent father, firm in the belief that he is called upon to protect his flock, and that too many rules and regulations only get in the way. His junior officers’ devotion to him feels entirely real, and the ways in which he is tangled up with members of the community, including Brendan’s Aunt Jean, becomes clearer and more menacing as the novel progresses.
Another fascinating character is Dugger, an autistic man who has been recording the town in images and sound for nearly three decades. Dugger’s photos and audio recordings lend an intriguing and essential layer to the plot.
But the real triumph of Milchman’s first novel is the pacing. The plot unfolds at an excellent clip, stalling in just the right moments, lingering on characters long enough for us to get to know them, ultimately rushing headlong to a series of startling revelations. I found myself completely wrapped up in the story, unwilling to put the novel down until I had reached the fascinating and unexpected conclusion.
Ballantine Books, Jan. 2013 ISBN 978-0345534217
Michelle Richmond is the author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the novels No One You Know and Dream of the Blue Room, and the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. Visit her at http://michellerichmond.com.