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American/Cozy Mysteries

The End Game, Gerrie Ferris Finger, Minotaur, $24.99.

The End Game by Gerrie Ferris Finger

Every so often the St. Martin's Malice Domestic winner hits one out of the park—case in point: In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming. The End Game is almost as good, and that's saying a lot. Like Spencer-Fleming's book, it's hardly a cozy, though it gives a nod to the traditional mystery through the use of an actual locked room murder and some tricky stuff involving train whistles. Dorothy L. Sayers would be proud. But then she wasn't really a cozy writer, either.

Ferris' ethos isn't cozy, it's fairly hard boiled, and so is the topic she's chosen to write about: missing children. Her spare prose and unsentimental writing style get you through some of the hard stuff in the story. Her main character, Moriah Dru, runs an agency called Child Trace, Inc. She's retired from the police force and often works with her ex-partner, Rick Lake, as she does in this book. Lake is also Dru's lover, but none of that complicates the story too much. Like a runaway freight train, this novel is all about narrative drive.

I think it's pretty difficult to actually make all the details of a straight through investigation seem interesting. Of course it's done on television all the time, but you feel on TV that things are left out or compressed. Nothing seems left out here, and still it's pretty hard to stop turning the pages. The story opens with a terrible fire in a tiny Atlanta neighborhood called Cabbagetown. The bodies of the owners have been found inside; their young foster daughters have vanished, and that's the focus of the story.

Skillfully setting up and investigating different suspects without seeming to do so is a tricky business, and Finger totally carries it off. The investigation seems like an explication of the neighborhood—the relationships and resentments of those who have lived in it for a long time—but really the author is taking you by the hand and letting you think over each resident as a possible suspect. She assumes intelligence on the part of the reader, something I always appreciate.

Nothing drives a narrative like missing kids, and I appreciated that they weren't exploited by the author for their narrative possibilities. She's not making you grab for the Kleenex. The girls are almost more like McGuffins that Dru and Lake are looking for; you hope they'll be found—they're children—but the hunt is as important as the finding. Some of the stuff Dru finds out in the course of her investigation about why children are taken is pretty stomach churning, but the author doesn't dwell on it. Dru needs to move forward, and so does the story.

Finger hints at a backstory for Dru and Lake and while they are fully dimensional characters, their relationship will probably need focus in future books, as I'm sure this is the first of many. The depth she brings to the story telling is unusually accomplished; it stays with you when you're finished, it's not just a thriller read for the thrill. The Atlanta setting is used well also, something that bodes well for future installments. All I can say is, welcome to the mystery community, Ms. Finger. It feels like you've moved right in.

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