Half Past Dead
One of the worst things I could ever imagining happening to me would be to be imprisoned for a crime I didn’t commit. Being in prison is enough of a soul-killing experience without the knowledge that you’re innocent as part of the package. Maybe that’s why I’m always fascinated by characters in fiction who have experienced this very thing. I’m not interested in reading about their day after day, month after month, year after year, time in prison. I am interested in their lives after prison. How does one survive such a thing? Perhaps it’s the ultimate in survival tales to me, but any book that features a protagonist trying to put their life back together after an unjust incarceration is an autobuy for me. Whether they work or not is largely up to the author. In the case of Meryl Sawyer’s latest, the author handles the life after prison part of the story well but loses sight of the romantic elements and some character development within the complicated mystery plot.
After serving three years of her sentence in a federal prison, Kaitlin (Kat) Wells is facing another year at least before even being considered eligible for parole. When she’s offered the chance to get out early in exchange for her help in catching the true criminals, Kat bitterly accepts. She has no other choice. If she wants out and to prove her innocence she’ll need to return to her hometown of Twin Oaks, Mississippi and find the people who framed her for a bank robbery. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation will provide her with a cover doing a work furlough at the local newspaper and Kat will keep an ear to the ground. No one can know what she’s really doing in Twin Oaks, including the new Sheriff, Justin Radner.
After college, a stint in the armed forces, and some time on the New Orleans police force, Justin retunrs to Twin Oaks. The town’s in his blood and he hopes to turn his temporary appointment as Sheriff into a permanent position. His welcome home isn’t quite the one he hoped for. The discovery of a body leads him into the first murder investigation his town has seen in years and the arrival of just released convict Kat Wells is a complication he’d rather do without. Justin knows what the statistics on recidivism are and he’s determined to keep Kat on the straight and narrow. If he can’t do that, then he’s very willing to see she goes right back to prison. Discovering that he has feelings for her isn’t going to change either decision.
Kat and Justin’s relationship is very nicely done. Justin is wary of his attraction to Kat, and the pacing of romance is just right. Initially, visions of hate sex were dancing uneasily in my head as I read. Too many authors go for the sex first, even when the characters have no reason to trust each other. That never feels like it’s going to work. Sure, I believe you can be majorly attracted to someone who’s wildly inappropriate, but I don’t believe that you’re going to have much of a chance of things working out in the end if you immediately act on that attraction. Because Kat and Justin have to deal with their baggage before they even begin to think about acting on their attraction, I believed in them.
What was a little harder to accept was the piled-on nature of the mystery. Justin is investigating the murder in his jurisdiction (done by a man who’s basically a serial killer according to the prologue). He becomes involved in Kat’s case when he becomes interested in her. Additonal attacks confuse matters even further. As a long time mystery reader, I’m all for a compelling and complex mystery story. But the many storyline threads in this novel began to feel a little like “everything but the kitchen sink” plotting, and that’s never a good thing. If I’m spending more time at the end of it all feeling confused about who did what to whom instead of feeling satisfied, it means the character development is lacking. In fact, the motivation for her characters is both a strength and a weakness for this author. Kat and Justin’s behavior is clearer than clear, but the same can’t be said for some of the supporting cast.
Meryl Sawyer is an author who’s almost always on for me as a reader. I like her compelling protagonists. I like the ominous tone she’s able to create. And in the case of Half Past Dead, I was very satisfied by Kat’s comeback from her wrongful imprisonment. If I had a wish for her next novel it would be that in the editing process she removed one plot thread completely. Will I be there regardless? Yes.