Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99
It is always a pleasant surprise when an author’s storytelling prowess grows as she goes along. I liked “Rage Against the Dying,” Becky Masterman’s first Brigid Quinn book. The second book, “Fear the Darkness,” not so much. The third, “A Twist of the Knife,” is an energetic and throughtful return for ex-FBI agent Brigid Quinn.
Leaving the dry heat of her home near Tucson and the loving embrace of her husband, Carlo, Brigid returns to her humid home state of Florida, with a chance to solve a fifteen-year-old mystery and perhaps save a man waiting on Florida’s death row.
What initially propels Brigid out of her comfort zone, such as it is, is the word that her father is gravely ill. Although the Quinn family dynamic is chaotic and fractured, Brigid dutifully returns to comfort the mother who holds her at arm’s length and the ex-cop father with the violent temper. Her brother, Todd, is a police detective there and unencumbered by any obligation to their parents. Her sister, Ariel, is with the CIA and who-knows-where for who-knows-how-long. Thus the burden of patronizing the parental units falls mostly on Brigid. On prickly, cold-eyed, independent Brigid. Carlo has provided a healing bridge for Brigid to return to a fairly normal life from what she witnessed as an FBI agent and from the moral depths to which she plunged in her quest to obtain justice for the victims she saw in her many years. At the age of sixty, she has taken up being a private investigator, so she still steps over to the dark side and risks inky glimpses of the depravity of the human soul. But Carlo isn’t in Florida, is he?
The woman who recently saved Brigid’s life at the risk of her own personal well-being, former FBI agent Laura Coleman, has asked for Brigid’s help. Now mostly recovered physically from the injuries she acquired while saving Brigid, Laura now works in Florida. In a case of turnabout, she works for a defense attorney. After years of putting criminals in jail, she is now desperately working to get someone off of death row.
Marcus Creighton has been on death row for fifteen years. He was convicted of murdering his wife. Their three young children disappeared at the same time. Although the bodies of his children have not been recovered, they are presumed dead, murdered by their father. If they are alive, perhaps it would be better if they were dead. Alison Samuels, an advocate for missing children with a local organization, thinks one of the children may have been sold as a sex slave. Sold by Creighton, perhaps to cover a huge debt he owed to a criminal moneylender.
Up until his wife’s murder, Marcus Creighton appeared to be a prosperous businessman with a beautiful wife and three sweet children. The unappealing underbelly of his life was burst open when authorities learned about his debt, his mistress, and his unhappy home life. Marcus claimed his mistress, Shayna Murry, was his alibi for the time of the murder. But, surprise, she doesn't back him up. So, bingo, bango, bongo. Slap the cuffs on and do not pass Go.
Brigid owes Laura her life. She would be a cur if she refused Laura’s request to join the investigation on Marcus’ behalf. However, with a lifetime spent putting miscreants in jail, helping someone to get out of jail seems a bit antithetical. Nevertheless, Brigid agrees and jumps right in.
Shortly after Brigid joins the team, word comes down that Marcus’ execution has been set for five days down the road. Laura is frantic. Brigid tries to pull off some miracles. It is possible that there may be fingerprints on the murder weapon, a hairdryer, that will be visible using newer scientific techniques. It is possible that the mistress’ testimony may be “corrected.” It is possible that the real murderer, if one exists, can be found. All of this serves as a handy excuse to avoid hanging out at the hospital watching her father gasp and her mother grow an ever stonier visage.
Becky Masterman has pulled one out of her writer’s hat, for sure. The story, which could be just a straight-ahead thriller, stops on many occasions to ponder the morality of catching perpetrators at all costs. It stops to examine the lives of people traumatized by the past and asked to make choices that have no good endings. It makes us wonder at the humaneness of execution. Not just of death by injection or the electric chair, but the inhumanity of caging people for years while awaiting their appointment with death.
Brigid is a tough cookie. I like tough cookies. Brigid has a professional lifetime of awful truths but also a resilience and secret optimism about life. Her narrator’s voice is directed strongly at the reader, much more so than other first-person narrators in crime series. She is confessing to her readers. Personally, I absolve her.