Her Last Word
I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Mary Burton’s romantic suspense novels and have generally found them to contain complex, intriguing mysteries with a reasonably-sized helping of romance that is enough to satisfy my shippy little heart. Unfortunately however, Ms. Burton’s latest standalone title, Her Last Word is a bit of a mixed bag. The mystery element is once again based on a cold-case, this time the disappearance of a teenaged girl some fourteen years earlier, and there are plenty of red herrings and wrong turns – but the way the story is constructed proved something of a barrier to my becoming fully engaged and the romance, such as it is, is perfunctory; the overall story would have made perfect sense without it and the book’s single sex scene feels as though it has been inserted for the sake of it.
Kaitlin Roe has spent much of the last fourteen years feeling guilty over what happened the night her cousin, Gina Mason, was abducted. Kaitlin, Gina and two of their friends, Jennifer and Erika had snuck away with a bottle of spiked lemonade and proceeded to get very drunk; Jennifer called her sister, Ashley, to come and get her and Erika, leaving Kaitlin and Gina to make their way home on their own. Not long after the other two girls were picked up, a man wearing a clown mask grabbed Gina and yelled at Kaitlin to run. Even though she was drunk and, as it was later revealed, drugged, Kaitlin refused to leave until her cousin’s assailant pulled a knife, put it to her throat and then, when Kaitlin still didn’t leave, cut off Gina’s ear while threatening to do worse if Kaitlin didn’t do as she was told. So she ran. And Gina was never seen again.
Fourteen years later, Kaitlin – after some years studying and working in Dallas – has returned to Richmond and is now a professor of communications at Virginia University. She had a reputation for being something of a ‘wild child’ – hanging out with the wrong boys, regularly getting drunk – but now older and wiser, she’s cleaned up her act and is determined to find out what happened to Gina. She decides to tap into the recent trend for making ‘true-crime’ podcasts, hoping that talking to people who knew Gina and were involved with the investigation may jog memories – either those of her contributors, or people who listen to the finished product.
Detective John Adler, recently returned to active duty after being injured in an arson attack, is called to the home of a young woman who has been found dead – obviously murdered – in her bathtub. Her throat was cut, and she was posed in such a way as to indicate that the killer wanted to humiliate her; there are no signs of sexual assault, but the perpetrator obviously planned meticulously, because there is no trace evidence at the scene or on the body. The dead woman is Jennifer Ralston, and as Adler and his partner canvass family, friends and neighbours, it emerges that for some time Jennifer had the feeling she was being followed. When Adler learns that Jennifer had been one of the girls present on the night of Gina Mason’s disappearance, and that she had recently met with Kaitlin Roe, he starts to believe that there may be a link between the recent murder and the fourteen-year-old cold case. And if his hunch is right, then digging up the past in her quest for the truth has put Kaitlin right in the killer’s sights.
The suspense plot is well-conceived and while the identity of Gina’s murderer is known fairly early on, the story focuses mostly on the hunt for Jennifer’s killer and whoever is out to harm Kaitlin, and on working out the links between the two cases. The identity of the villain isn’t obvious, and Adler pursues various leads, all of which point towards an ex- of Kaitlin’s and his friends. Or do they?
The story should have been compelling as Kaitlin gradually pieces together the events surrounding Gina’s disappearance and Adler pieces together the pieces relating to the present day murder – but the structure of the novel, in which the author switches back and forth between the current investigation, notes about Gina’s disappearance from over a decade earlier and transcripts, and recordings of Kaitlin’s interviews made it hard for me to engage fully with it. Normally, I enjoy stories that feature flashbacks or dual timelines, but this one just didn’t work for me. The interview/transcript chapters are quite short – some of them no more than a paragraph or two – but the switch was often jarring; I’d be into something meaty and then I found myself being pulled out of the action and into something else that had a completely different feel to it. I’m sure this is one of those times where ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, but the execution made it difficult for me to immerse myself in the mystery.
The central characters are somewhat underdeveloped, too. What we’re told about them is intriguing, but there’s little built on what we know. Adler comes from a wealthy family who don’t like his being a cop, and he was injured when he hauled his partner out of a burning building; his partner lost a leg and is undergoing gruelling rehab and Adler can’t help feeling guilty that he got out in one piece. The teenaged Kaitlin turned to drink and drugs as a way of coping with the pain of her brother’s suicide, and is stlll viewed with suspicion and dislike by many of the people she grew up with because of her reputation for being a liar, a drunk and ‘trouble’. I liked her bloody-mindedness in facing down those same people as part of her investigation, but otherwise, there’s no real depth to either protagonist, and the romantic elements are thrown into the last ten percent of the story; there’s no chemistry between them and they don’t spend a great deal of time together. I would have been quite happy had Adler and Kaitlin simply acknowledged a mutual attraction and agreed to see where it would take them at the end, rather than the rushed ILYs we actually get.
Her Last Word isn’t a terrible book by any means, but I won’t deny I was disappointed. I can’t, in all honesty, give it a wholehearted recommendation, and would advise anyone who has never read Mary Burton but wants to give her a try to make a start elsewhere.