The Bitter Season
A good mystery takes the everyday and turns it macabre and frightening. Letters in the mail become sinister missives. An odd sound becomes a deadly intruder. Petty problems and meaningless rivalries become motives in horrific crimes. Family members become suspects and friends turn out to be turn coats. A good mystery makes you look at everything around you with suspicious eyes. The Bitter Season is a very good mystery.
Detective Nikki “Tinks” Liska is surprised and more than a little perturbed when her first day on the Cold Case Unit is turned into a pissing contest with one of the only other officers in the squad. Ignoring the many cases which would benefit from a second look utilizing new forensic technology, the misogynistic jerk is insistent on re-examining the 25 year old homicide of a Sex Crimes cop. As much a part of the Blue Wall as any of her male cohorts, Nikki also hates seeing a police officer’s murder go unpunished. But the case seems pretty much unsolvable – no forensic evidence, no real clues, no actual witnesses. When the Lieutenant winds up having to pull rank to stop their argument, the end result is Nikki finding herself as the lead on the very case she hadn’t wanted to work to begin with. It’s enough to make a girl miss Homicide.
Detective Sam Kovac is not having a good time trying to replace Nikki as his partner and has gone through three trainees in as many months. As the book tells us “Of the other two, one had gone back to his old job in Sex Crimes; the other had transferred to a sudden opportunity in the Business Technology unit. Neither had been cut out for Homicide as far as Kovac was concerned – an opinion he had made abundantly clear.” His latest trainee is someone I hope we see a lot of in future books. Michael Taylor was an MP in the army and has risen quickly through the Minneapolis Police Department ranks. He’s good looking, bright, athletic and did I mention good looking? His perfection rubs Kovac the wrong way but I really hope he learns to live with it because I loved him. The scene where we are introduced to him and he earns the Kovac approved nickname “Stench” was hilarious. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll just say it involves some vomiting, a trashcan and a suspect with the runs.
While Kovac goes home to sleep off his exciting day, across town a young woman named Evi is woken by nightmares from her past. Right now her life is quite perfect but it was not always that way and she has a tough time forgetting that. She doesn’t know why she’s recently developed a sense of impending doom but she’s doing all she can to push it to the back of her mind. Shadows from yesteryear have no place in the sunshiny existence she has today.
Yet that night, a gruesome double murder occurs and causes the lives of Evie, Liska and Kovac to come to an inexorable collision. For while they hunt for a killer, the killer hunts for the people who caused all the pain which led to the crime. There is a definite end game in motion but it’s pretty clear no one is expected to win.
Ms. Hoag is an experienced author who completely nails the elements of a police procedural. We have our experienced, cranky detectives with the cynical outlook on life. We have the bizarre crimes which no one but our brilliant hero and heroine could solve. We have villains, red herrings, bad cop coffee, bureaucracy and reticent witnesses. We have an absolutely fascinating case that becomes harder and harder to quit reading about as we walk down the dark path our detectives are forced to walk. If you’re a fan of the genre, let me assure you everything you love is right here.
Fans familiar with the series have had six books to get to know Liska and Kovac. The author does exactly what the writer of an extended series should do with them – she allows the characters to grow very subtly while still remaining true to themselves. Nikki (Liska) continues to struggle with single motherhood and her ongoing battle with her ex, but being in the Cold Case unit has done exactly what she hoped it would. She can now work more regular hours and spend more time with the boys. She does miss the comrades in arms she had at Homicide and the thrill of a hot case hunt, but she is determined to make the transition. Kovac is his usual grouchy, jaded self but the addition of Taylor moves him from his comfort zone in the best of ways. As I said before, I hope we see a lot more of Taylor. I also hope Nikki doesn’t turn cougar on us and get together with him. I want him taking her place as Kovac’s partner and maybe being her friend. Nothing more.
Speaking of Taylor, I liked that he was fresh to Homicide and not quite as jaded as the others but in no way an innocent, trusting, ‘aw shucks’ sort of guy. He’s got the makings of a great detective (at least in a novel) with the bonus of being a new focus for our interest. In this book we learn only a little of his background and what brought him to Minneapolis, but I’m looking forward to getting to know him in future volumes. (Oh, please, please let me get to know him in the next few books!)
If the book has a weakness it is in the mystery. It’s not that the mystery isn’t interesting, that the homicide isn’t gruesome or that the killer isn’t psychotic enough. While I was reading the book I was totally riveted and in between readings I was anxious to get back to it. But once I put it down it felt a bit like it was another notch in the belt for Liska/Kovac. It didn’t have a perspective that made it stick out from the other books the way Cold, Cold Heart did. That’s a common situation with these long running series and not so much a flaw as a quibble.
My second quibble is the near HEA for the character who had the dramatic showdown sequence at the end of the book. Given the horrific attack which began those terrifying moments I didn’t think that was very realistic.
But those are nitpicks of a near flawlessly executed suspense novel. Fans will not want to miss this. New readers can start here and work their way through the back list – and you will want to read every one of the Liska/Kovac books once you’ve read this one. The Bitter Season is the kind of book that serves as a launch point to a series addiction.