In the Bleak Midwinter
M. R. Sellars
WillowTree Press, November 2011
It took me a while to decide that I liked Sellars’s Rowan Gant novels, which is a little odd since I am squarely in their target market interest-wise (except for that one little detail of not being a fiction reader). I’m not sure where I turned that particular corner, but before the end of the third book, I noticed that my resistance had pretty much vanished as the characters (and the author) grew.
Now, FBI Agent Constance Mandalay gets a book of her own, the story of a case where she certainly could have had Rowan in tow. Constance is the fifth agent to be assigned to an extremely strange case in northern Missouri. She gets her assignment at the last minute … near Christmas…with no backup…and the case file is lean, to put it mildly. Is she being set up to fail by some unknown force of Bureau politics? Are an improbable number of police and FBI officers involved in a multi-year coverup? Or is the answer even weirder than that?
The pacing of this book is obviously strategic. It is a straight-out police procedural for about as many pages as it can possibly stand to be, and when the weird stuff hits, everything goes up in the air. There are too many possibilties, too many leads, too little time; or put another way, it gets very realistic. All along, the attention to detail is exceptional. The reader is projected into each significant scene by skillful use of imagery. The author definitely understands “show, don’t tell.” The use of a “highly intuitive sharp observer” (Sheriff Carmichael, who doesn’t care for the term “psychic,” but is one) as a principal character helps: after reading the book, see if you can forget the scene near the dumpster any time soon.
Sellars does not play completely fair, at least not by the traditional rules of the mystery genre. Some major clues are identified but not explained until later (e.g., Constance gets an email with an encrypted attachment and a password hint. We see her finally get the password, but we’re not told what is revealed yet). Even so, I intuited a big part of where the story was going, but not how it was getting there. Having finished the book earlier today, I am still processing the ending, which doesn’t fit neatly into one category. Constance is left in the same state, and how she deals with it is left mostly to our imaginations (or, of course, to the next novel).
The crime at the root of this tale is a particularly heinous example of child abuse, so take that as a trigger warning. The author, however, seems to have ideas similar to mine about what constitutes a proper punishment for such persons: cruel and no longer usual though it may be.
I know titles are not copyrighted, and title collisions are fairly common, but there are a startling number of books and other works titled “In the Bleak Midwinter,” including other mystery novels. Perhaps it is Sellars’s ambition to make us forget all those others?
When I picked up In the Bleak Midwinter, I expected a good read. I got that; I got a wild ride; and I got a flashlight shined around in my own head, too. Yes, there are shadows.
I’m always pleased to have a book exceed my expectations; this one exploded them.
Trade Paperback ISBN-13: 978-0-9794533-8-0 / Retail: $16.95
E-Pub ISBN-13: 978-0-9794533-9-7 / Retail: $4.99
Kindle ASIN: TBA / Retail: $4.99
Special Library Ed. HC ISBN-13: TBA / Retail: $27.95
(Complimentary ARC gratefully acknowledged; opinions my own, your mileage may vary, etc.)