Fortunes of the Dead, Lynn Hightower, Pocket Star, $7.50.
Just as an author can be "made" by smart publicity and well planned book signings, I think an author can just as easily be destroyed or ignored by inconsistent, careless publishing. Lynn Hightower, an incredibly underrated writer, is in the latter category. She's been published by several different publishers and she's written two different series as well as an excellent and thoughtful standalone, and yet - no one has heard of her. She even won a Shamus award for her first P.I. novel, Satan's Lambs, which, due to the vagaries of the aforementioned careless publishing, is out of print and impossible to find. I have been a fan of her more recently available Sonora Blair series, which is an excellent police procedural series with a female/single mother cop. Alternately scary, moving, and well written, I am pleased to tell you that her P.I. series featuring Lena Padgett is just as good, and just as memorable.
Like many of Hightower's other novels, Fortunes of the Dead is absolutely packed - it's packed with plot line, a wonderful setting and great central characters who move the reader through the narrative with a lightening speed. Fortunes of the Dead's several plot lines draw together beautifully by the end of the book, but at the beginning, the story seems to center around a missing college co-ed whose sister and father ask Lena to take on the case which her cop boyfriend, Joel Mendez, is already working on. Lena, whose sister and nephew were murdered (I'm assuming in the first, unavailable novel, Satan's Lambs), feels a kinship with the dead woman's sister and, needing a paying job, agrees to take the case. Hightower then jerks us around - to the story of a rodeo clown who lost her sister and nephew at Waco; to the story of a series of dead federal agents; and to the story of a lonely mother and her autistic child living on a practically inaccessible mountaintop where she's visited mainly by her controlling husband, who, as it turns out, is a major suspect in Lena's case. Lena and her boyfriend are soon at odds over what he sees as a conflict of interest, but she keeps doggedly working, chipping away until more and more of the case becomes clear both to her and to the reader.
Hightower has a real ability to make you emotionally invested in her characters - and I'm not just talking about the main character of Lena, but the subsidiary characters of the lonely mother, the rodeo clown, etc. She even draws in what must be for her a love of horses - many of her books have had horses as a sub-theme in a way that only a true horse lover/owner could write about. This is also a suspenseful and well told story that had me flipping the pages faster and faster until I got to the end - if you are a fan of other and better known PIs like Tess Monaghan, Kinsey Milhone or Sharon McCone, Lena Padgett is well worth a look. She has an edge to her that will make her come alive for you quite a while after you've finished the book.
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