Imagine if the manor house mystery shenanigans of Knives Out were being investigated by a female police detective with a recent history of job-related trauma. That’s what reading and thoroughly enjoying Tessa Wegert’s debut novel, Death In The Family, felt like to me, as we join Detective Shana Merchant in looking into the case of a young heir’s bloody disappearance.
Shana has recently rejoined the police force, despite the objections of her police psychiatrist fiance, Dr Carson Gates. The engaged couple had left New York City for his hometown in the Thousand Islands area to allow her to recuperate from her devastating experience as the last victim of a serial kidnapper she had been investigating. Unlike Blake Bram’s other victims, Shana managed to escape with her life. Over a year on, she finally feels ready to take up her career once more, with one major difference: the expectation of far less violence up here in bucolic Alexandria Bay than in the city she had been happy to flee.
So when the call comes in on a stormy day that someone has gone missing from a secluded private island, Shana isn’t hesitant about responding, with her partner (though technically her subordinate) Investigator Tim Wellington in tow. On the privately owned Tern Island, they meet the Sinclair family and entourage, only some of whom believe that Jasper, the 24 year-old youngest grandson, didn’t voluntarily disappear from bed the previous night. Shana, however, takes one look at the blood-stained sheets where Jasper had been lying next to his soundly sleeping girlfriend Abella, and knows that foul play was definitely involved, even if Tim needs more convincing:
“This doesn’t feel like a runaway situation,” I said. “Jasper’s phone is still charging upstairs. What twentysomething guy leaves the house without his phone? I think Jasper’s in trouble.” It was such a huge understatement; saying it out loud sounded stupid to my ear.
“We’ll find him,” Tim said again. “I know we will.”
“These people.” I shook my head. “This isn’t a soap opera, it’s a shit show.”
“They’re not from around here. So.”
The subtle class humor serves as a perfect counterpoint to a rising note of madness as the storm intensifies, cutting Tern Island off from outsiders and trapping Shana and Tim with someone Shana is convinced must be a murderer. But there’s no body, and as the hours pass and the pressure of investigating a group of privileged, demanding rich people starts to get to her, Shana’s mind begins to buckle, especially after one of them seems to deliberately scald her with boiling water:
I was of sound mind, yes. But when I looked at my palm, pink as a boiled Easter ham, it wasn’t a burn I saw, but blood. Blood, slick and glossy, gluey and thick. Blood between my fingers and coating my nails. It was like those thirteen months and the distance they put between me and Bram never happened. The walls pressed in around my body, and I found myself thinking, Please don’t let this blood be his. Oh God, I’m too late.
Fear, dazzling in its intensity, coursed through me. The flashback was so convincing I wanted to cry. My chest exploded with pain and I realized I’d been holding my breath. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, the imagined blood on my hand was gone.
The twists and revelations come fast and thick as Shana investigates the disappearance while struggling to keep a tight grip on her sanity. The last thing she wants to admit is that Carson was right and she needs more time away from a job she loves. But how far will she be willing to push herself and her suspects in order to get to the bottom of what happened to Jasper Sinclair?
I loved this book. As tightly plotted as an Agatha Christie novel but with the thrilling modern twist of a damaged police officer heroine, it combined some of the best elements of traditional and contemporary mysteries to tell an absolute knock-out of a story. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, so assured is the craftsmanship. Fortunately, it’s the first in what will hopefully be a long line of terrific Shana Merchant mysteries, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to reading them all.