Cover of Snow
I love book covers featuring snow. You would think I would hate them since for much of winter it is a scene readily available right outside any of my windows, but something about the image of snow has always lured me in. Somehow the scenes communicate peace and rest, like nature is taking a much needed break from the frantic activity of the other seasons. However, for those of us who live in areas that can experience catastrophic storms, the reality of it is far from comforting.
Waking up one cold winter’s morning to an empty bed has Nora Hamilton going in search of her husband. He doesn’t respond to her calling his name in their nearly silent house. A quick examination of his usual morning haunts – kitchen, bathroom- finds coffee brewing but no person in residence. With a growing sense of dread, she seeks him throughout the rest of their large, old home. She has been refurbishing an upstairs hideaway for him, and it is here where she finds Brendan hanging from the light fixture. The rest of the day is a blur – the arrival of his best friend, a fellow officer she does not remember calling, family arrivals and the body leaving. All too soon there is a funeral, the guests are gone and Nora is left with nothing but questions.
Since there was no note her biggest question is why. Why did Brendan commit suicide? And why did she, a light sleeper, not awaken when he got out of the bed? In searching through a desk drawer she finds a chilling answer to the second question. She hadn’t awakened because Brendan had added a sleeping pill to her wine the evening before. But this just brings her to more questions. The prescription used is a week old. What had caused him to get the prescription filled? Why had he drugged her? What had happened in the last few days of Brendan’s life that made him feel this was the only way out? And what is the mysterious red mark on the pill bottle?
Her journey into what happened the days before Brendan’s death have her crossing paths with the town’s most mysterious residents.: Ned Kramer, a man whose home she was helping refurbish and who takes a strange interest in her husband’s death. Dugger Mackenzie, the town mechanic with Aspergers syndrome. But most especially, Brendan’s own mother and aunt – two women strangely trapped in events that happened many years ago.
The characters here are used to add to the sense of menace. Every one of them has a secret and those secrets added together reveal a surprising truth. The secondary characters worked beautifully and added a sense of depth and realism. Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way for Nora and Ned, the two primaries. Instead, we wind up with two rather shallow characters. I think that was because the author was so determined to make them good people that she failed to make them real ones. Fortunately, the more layered presentation of the secondary characters keeps the story moving.
This is a mystery so I am not going to go in depth regarding the plot. Like all good suspense books, the solution to the puzzle is laid out from beginning to end and talking too much about that will simply ruin the read. I will say the author does a great job of building the apprehension and curiosity. Each piece of the puzzle is handed out one portion at a time until we are hit by the dazzling whole. This more than anything is what makes a good suspense story and the author does a terrific job of building the little moments of terror into one shattering conclusion.
Unlike in many books where the cover has nothing to do with the story, this one actually was a snap shot from the tale. The quiet, dangerous presence of inclement weather is a lurking shadow throughout the narrative and is a lovely addition to the sense of danger in the tale.
The author also makes good use of her setting. Any fan of mysteries knows that small towns in suspense novels tend to be the opposite of those in romance novels. Where in romance the people welcome everyone and make them a part of the family, in suspense the people are insular and barely tolerate the presence of outsiders. In romance, small towns epitomize all that is good and right with the world. In suspense, they remind us that humans are people, regardless of how small a number we are congregated in, and that sometimes small numbers actually accentuate big problems. That is the case here. As Nora looks for answers she finds herself strangely alone, mixing with only other newcomers to the community who have no clue as to whatever secrets the town hides. This is central to the plot and it worked. Anyone who has lived in any community knows that people are suspicious when others question them about old news. It’s natural. I’ve lived in small towns and agree that their sense of “us and them” is exaggerated and would further impede any questioning someone was doing regarding the past.
And that is where I ran into my first problem with the book. Nora is a luddite who doesn’t use computers. Fair enough. I dislike digital cameras and rarely use them. Here is the thing, though – if someone in my family died and the answer was in the digital camera, you can bet your last dollar I would figure out how to get at that info. Nora doesn’t use a computer to get answers. Instead she searches people’s homes and questions the town folk. I really tripped over this. At least some of the information Nora needed was available on the net or in the news archives of the local library. It didn’t work for me that she didn’t utilize these simple methods to get at the truth.
Another simple factor that didn’t work for me was the fact that much of the novel hinged on Nora’ s superficiality. She had had only a surface relationship with her husband and as a result didn’t know important things about his past, most especially a childhood trauma that most women would have been very curious about. This was a key factor in the plot, in fact the plot essentially hinged on what Nora didn’t know about her spouse. I felt like that was an easy way out of plotting for the author and wasn’t too pleased with it. In addition, much of the book was about how Nora was learning to leave behind her superficiality, and yet the fact that she seemed to be developing a relationship with Ned Kramer when her husband had been dead mere weeks seems to indicate the opposite. How can you be developing depth when even death seems only a bump in the path of your life? The fact that Ned was bland and essentially cowardly added insult to the injury.
Those flaws were big enough to be worth mentioning in a review but I enjoyed the novel in spite of them. As mentioned above, the author makes good use of location and builds suspense well. Another reason I enjoyed it is that it explored my favorite theme – how the cover up of small crimes can turn into the commission of huge ones. That was definitely the case here as a small action with tragic consequences explodes into one of murder, corruption and obstruction of justice. I also thoroughly enjoyed the look at how lying for our kids and to them can lead to problems within them that we can never imagine. It’s a tough look at what happens when love fails to do what is right and does only what it wants.
This is Ms. Milchman’s debut novel. While not a perfect read it, is certainly an intriguing, intense tale of how small things can lead to big problems. I am happy to recommend it to suspense fans and look forward to her next book.