South of Hell, P.J. Parrish, Pocket Star, $7.99.
When I opened the envelope containing the ARC of South of Hell in front of my mail lady, she shrieked, "South of Hell! Nothing is South of Hell but Ann Arbor!" And indeed the wonderful new Louis Kincaid book is set in Ann Arbor, and for two writing sisters who now live down south, every detail - to this Ann Arborite - feels just right, down to Krazy Jim's and a certain mystery bookshop on 4th Avenue. But townie-ism aside, this book can be enjoyed purely on its own merits, this series being one of the more reliably written and enjoyable in contemporary mystery fiction.
The story opens with Louis Kincaid getting a phone call from an Ann Arbor cop, one who is looking into cold cases. One of them is an old case of Louis' when he was an Ann Arbor cop himself. He heads north from his home in Florida to find out what it is about a cold case that has the old cop so worked up - plus he's been offered a nice fat fee. Louis can barely remember the case himself - he had gotten suspicious about a car parked at the Amtrak station and called it in since it fit the description of a missing woman's car. He'd searched the car and filled out the report, and after that, it had left his mind. The Ann Arbor cop, Jake Shockey, wants Louis to go to the police impound lot with him and search the car again.
Louis goes along with it up to the point of finding a woman's bloodstained bra in the trunk but something seems off to him; he quickly realizes the bra has been planted by Shockey. But the seed of Louis' interest has also been planted, and he agrees to work privately for Shockey and go out and check out an abandoned farm near Hell, Michigan where the missing woman came from. Something about the farm gets to him and he can't really figure out Shockey's level of interest - he thinks it's just an old cop trying to get some points by solving an old case - until his old friend Mel tells him to ask Shockey if he had a relationship with the missing woman. Of course, he did.
While this book isn't a total mystery in terms of who is dead and who the probable perpetrator is, it's still mysterious - the barn seems haunted by ghosts, as does the entire farm. When a young girl named Amy as well as Louis' girlfriend Joe get involved, things become emotionally layered and complex, but still incredibly suspenseful. This is not only a book you won't be able to put down while you're reading it, parts of this moving story will stay with you well after you're finished. Along the way there's some disturbingly real violence - the violence making its point rather than being merely prurient.
The way this novelist puts a story together is pretty close to perfect, and this is one of the stronger entries in a long lived series that's kept its freshness over time. While I guess the Parrishs' wouldn't trade their sales numbers for the kind of critical attention and award recognition I feel they deserve, they are writing books on a level with more critically acclaimed writers like Robert Crais and Michael Connelly. If you haven't yet read a Louis Kincaid novel, you're in for a real treat.
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