Good news: Dead End is written to appeal to readers in several genres. It could easily be classified as mystery, women’s fiction, or romantic suspense and has a little of something for any of those genres. Bad news: Those little bits of something add up to a rather lengthy book that occasionally loses track of where it’s going.
What starts out as an intriguing puzzle soon devolves into a meandering study of human nature. Some of the many threads include small town prejudices, emotional abuse (both in marriage and between a mother and her son), the stalking of a teenage boy by a pedophile, and false accusations. Good news: When the author focused on the central mystery and romance, this book really held me. During those moments it became one of the better suspense books I’ve read in recent months. Bad news: The focused moments were few and far between.
Because of the various subplots it’s difficult to summarize this, but here goes. Brette Barry is a rural mail carrier in Wood County, Texas. As the book opens she is delivering mail to the unfriendly Pugh family mailbox when she notices a bloody handprint on the Dead End sign at the end of their driveway. She immediately assumes that it is a Halloween prank perpetrated by her son Eric and his best friend Hank. When she confronts Eric about the handprint, he denies all knowledge. By the time he goes to clean it up, it’s gone. Brette’s concern about the sign is soon overshadowed by Hank’s disappearance. Because of his manic-depressive mother, Hank spends a lot of time at the Barry household and has become like a second son to Brette. Though the police think he’s just run away to gain attention, Brette is not convinced.
That’s a long paragraph and it’s only describing plot points that occur in the first quarter of the book. Once Hank returns the book gets back to the bloody handprint and Brette’s reclusive neighbor, Sam Knight. He helped her look for Hank, but the sheriff is suspicious of his motives and when Hank returns and suggests that the handprint belonged to Tracie Pugh and Sam was the last to see her, Brette becomes concerned about Sam as well.
Brette is very likable, though she does jump to a lot of conclusions. Some are understandable, as when Sam explains his past to Brette – her conclusions aren’t completely rational but understandable considering she has two teenage boys to watch out for. Her leaps in logic about the handprint and Tracie Pugh aren’t as realistic. Sometimes she makes a leap based on no evidence and it’s apparent the author just needed her to know something in order to make the plot advance. Sam is a little harder to like. While I could see how someone with his past could be reluctant to make waves, his lack of a fighting spirit was a bit wearing. He’s being accused of things on very flimsy connections to events in his past, events that were beyond his control, and he does nothing.
The mystery is pretty strong, when it holds center stage. The romance is pretty strong too. But as I explained earlier, they often get shuffled to the background by various other subplots. The true problem with this is that though the secondary stories take up a lot of the book, they get pretty short shrift at the end of the story. The witch hunt that causes Sam to lose his job is addressed in a couple of lines, as is the pedophilia thread. The mystery and the romance play out, but nothing else does. All in all it’s a very mixed bag.