Hardcover, 978-1-63450-226-9 (also available in ebook and aduiobook formats), 288 pgs., $24.99
November 15, 2015
Jack McBride’s wife, Julie, has up and disappeared, abandoning McBride and their son, Ethan (“the proof they had once been in love and happy would walk in the room, ear buds in, the musty, sour smell of puberty following him like the contrail of a jet.”). Needing a fresh start, McBride has left his position with the Dallas FBI office and moved to the sleepy East Texas town of Stillwater with thirteen-year-old Ethan, to accept a position as chief of police. Stillwater has a freakishly low crime rate until McBride arrives to encounter murder, a fifty-year-old cold case, blackmail, rumors of the previous chief’s long-standing corruption, racketeering—and that’s just the first week.
The first volume of Melissa Lenhardt’s planned mystery series starring Jack McBride, Stillwater does a terrific job of introducing her characters and setting the stage. With an admirable economy of well-chosen words and precise details, Lenhardt skillfully infuses the town of Stillwater with atmosphere and her characters with personality and complex backstories. In particular, Lenhardt writes funny, intelligent, independent women. Ellie Martin, a native of Stillwater and once bitten–twice shy, is much more than McBride’s love interest.
Stillwater turns noir when McBride comes face to face with Buck Pollard, the previous chief, in a convenience store, the atmosphere so strained that you can hear the proverbial dropping pin. “An avalanche of new ice fell in the icemaker. The coffee pot clicked off. Strains of country music, tinny and flat, floated from a radio on the counter behind the clerk. Breakfast taquitos and hot dogs rolled in their warmer.”
Lenhardt displays comedic chops with a running joke involving McBride’s footwear (city boy with fancy shoes), and when a cop wants to interview a witness in the local nursing home, a caretaker tells him that trying to understand Mrs. Dodsworth is “all stream of conscious type stuff. Like reading Faulkner. It’s not easy to understand.” Lenhardt also has a good ear for dialogue and a deft touch with the difficult relationship between McBride and Ethan.
Ethan sat up and plastered on a smile. “My day was great, Dad! Half the school hated me because I’m your son. The other half tried to be my best friend because I’m new and apparently have hair like some vampire dude.”
“If it makes you feel any better, some old man at the gas station made fun of my shoes.”
Inspired plotting, fast pacing, sly foreshadowing, and a steady serving of plot twists keeps you turning pages. With shades of Walking Tall (1973), long-held secrets surface and reveal the tangled motivations, intertwined lives, and political machinations of a small-town fiefdom. As McBride’s personal and career fears converge, Lenhardt expertly sets the hook for the next installment. I hope she writes quickly.
Melissa Lenhardt writes mystery, historical fiction, and women’s fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in Heater Mystery Magazine, The Western Online, and Christmas Nookies, a holiday romance anthology. Her debut novel, Stillwater, was a finalist for the 2014 Whidbey Writers’ MFA Alumni Emerging Writers Contest. She is a board member of the DFW Writers’ Workshop and vice president of the Sisters in Crime North Dallas Chapter. Lenhardt lives in Texas, with her husband and two sons.