This will be part review and part storycraft (including consistency) and will contain spoilers. It also describes some of the gore in it. The book also deals in child abuse. If you want to read this book, or you’re not a fan of child in danger books, you may want to skip this review. It’s also fairly long.
Crimson Lake Road is listed as “Desert Plains, #2” on Goodreads. As is the case in many of my reviews, I’m parachuting into a series after the characters have been established. It isn’t really apparent in this book that it’s #2 in a series on the cover (in fact, it doesn’t mention it at all) and past events aren’t really brought up in terms of these characters working together as a group, so it can and does work as a standalone, although reading the first will certainly inform the second.
The book opens with a horrific scene: a woman in a tunic on a kitchen table, her head obscured by bloody gauze. FBI agent Cason Baldwin and Detective Lucas Garrett (and everyone else in the entry team) believe the woman is dead. Until she starts flailing around.
We then cut to a bar, where (super smart) Jessica Yardley, currently working for the US Attorney’s office, is telling Baldwin she’s leaving the office and moving somewhere that she doesn’t have to see the terrible things she (and he) have seen. She agrees with her boss to work on this particular case and bring New Guy (Kyle? Don’t recall, he’s annoying and a cartoony frat boy know-it-all who has zero character development despite the fact he will be working this case) up to speed and get him going on it. New Guy’s schtick is having a sucker in his mouth all the time – even in court, and having to have the judge to tell him to ditch it. Even a frat boy would know this is not acceptable, come on.
Yardley goes to see the victim, whom they believe is the second victim of a killer using a series of four paintings as inspiration. The first, a woman named Kathy Pharr, did not survive. Yardley befriends woman #2, Angela River (“Call me Angie.”), telling herself there is no reason they can’t be friends. OK, I’ll push my disbelief that a prosecutor – even one leaving – would get emotionally involved with the victim of an open case in this way, even if Yardley seems desperate for friends and finds River a willing ear. The way things work out, however, it does seem that Yardley makes pretty bad choices about the people she wants to be in her life.
Meanwhile, everyone is trying to determine who the killer is, and delving into Pharr’s life to see if there are connections between her and River. There don’t seem to be any, but they keep digging, reinterviewing everyone. There’s an intimation that River’s fiancee, Dr. Michael Zachary, could be the killer/attacker, based on a profile developed by the FBI. The BAU, in fact (who develop such profiles) is on the verge of being shut down, which brings some tension into Baldwin’s life, since that’s his department.
We get some references to Yardley’s teenaged daughter Tara, and Yardley tells her new bestie that she was once married to a man who was a serial killer (this is apparently what the first book is about) and had a relationship with another bad guy. Tara is described as some kind of math savant and super smart, and we find out that she has been secretly visiting her (super smart and super manipulative) father on death row, while telling her mother she’s working in the robotics lab at the university.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit I love a good, morally grey character. I’ll even root for bad guys if they’re doing good things. But I want consistency. Barring some catastrophic event, for instance, an FBI agent isn’t going to suddenly rob a bank. Yardley is conscientious and wants bad guys found and punished for their wrongdoings.
That’s why it bothered me that when Tara and a friend are at River’s house, and River leaves, Tara calls Yardley, knowing Yardley wants to snoop around a bit. When Tara asks her “That’s what you wanted, right?”, this should have been a sign to Yardley to rethink herself. Instead, she does go snooping, and in doing so, finds a garage with gauze, etc., that indicate Dr Zachary could be their man, and calls Baldwin to get a judge to sign a warrant to search River and Zachary’s outbuildings. Baldwin does write the warrant but does not get a chance to get it under a judge’s pen, so Yardley takes it, thin as it is, and gets it signed. This should have been another sign to Yardley. But it isn’t.
When the warrant is served, River naturally accuses Yardley of getting close to her solely for the purposes of arresting Zachary, and storms off – rightly so, in my opinion. But, River gets over it, and they’re again friends as the book moves suddenly to the viewpoint of a defense attorney, previously not introduced to the reader, by the name of Dylan Aster. If you asked me to point to the character I’d be most interested in reading a book about, it would be Aster.
It seemed to me that Methos was having much more fun writing the parts with Aster – from describing his antics in getting himself held in contempt during a trial in front of a particular judge so that judge would likely have to recuse himself from any case Aster was involved with, to the play he made to have himself be able to be present while the grand jury was seated for Zachary’s indictment. Aster was irrepressible, and those scenes both lightened he mood during the middle of the book, but also helped carry the middle along. Often, the “sagging middle” is quite a problem for writer and reader alike, but Methos has avoided that here for the most part.
Kathy Pharr’s daughter, Harmony, goes missing. Her father Tucker, recently released from prison after being convicted of snatching and murdering a girl about Harmony’s age, has seen nothing, heard nothing, and is generally unhelpful. He also talks like someone from an Appalachian holler. I’m supposing this is because we’re told he has something like a 5th grade education, and is not terribly bright, so of course he’d speak poor English and have a southern accent, living there in Nevada. Baldwin finds the girl’s necklace and her phone, but not the girl herself. Since Zachary was remanded without bail, so could not have taken the girl himself, the group posits that perhaps Zachary and Tucker were working together. An independent crime reporter has been hovering at the edges of the investigation, and Yardley encounters him while she and Baldwin are working a piece of the case, interviewing a drug addict who claims to have seen Harmony. She thinks it’s interesting that he was nearby, but then thinks nothing more of it.
Meanwhile, in a subplot involving Tara, she is doing some work for her imprisoned father, selling his artwork. She changes her appearance and goes to some very sketchy warehouses to meet some equally sketchy bad dudes. This does not strike me as the actions of a supposed very smart person, and although Tara is described as a “savant”, she’s not someone who cannot function in society. She knows it’s dangerous, she knows her father is dangerous, yet she tells her mother nothing of all this (and Yardley doesn’t ask, even though a 17 year old seems to be at a college lab at all hours, every day).
The drug addict is then found hanging by his intestines in a house at Crimson Lake Road. This scene is not described in details, but the original painting that inspired it was. If you’ve seen the movie Hannibal (the film, with Anthony Perkins and Julianne Moore), the scene where Hannibal kills Inspector Pazzi will give you a good idea of it.
The group finally begins to realize that Zachary is not guilty, and looks even more closely at the original incident for which Tucker went to prison, which occurred in another town. Baldwin is close behind her, but Yardley is abducted before he arrives. When she comes to, she realizes she’s in a basement, and Tucker is strapped to a table, naked. The character who snatched her – who we guessed was the crime reporter – leaves the basement for a minute, and Yardley opens the small window to get out, but is unable to do so before their captor returns, and quickly hides in a closet. Their captor goes charging out to chase down Yardley, who manages to get out of the house for real and begins running. The bad guy is almost on her when Baldwin arrives on..I mean in…his Mustang to clip the bad guy and then cuff him.
Yardley’s fine, for the most part, and Tucker has been rescued, but is under arrest, as they’ve discovered Tucker used to live on Crimson Lake Road, and his family had other land there back in the day. While Tucker is lying in a hospital bed, cuffed to the rail, a nurse comes in, supposedly to give him pain meds, but really to inject him with something that will paralyze his muscles but will keep his heart and brain working while she slices and dices him to remove all his organs like the fourth painting.
We’ve already guessed that River is involved in these killings. When Yardley goes to River’s house, she sees that River has left in a hurry. Good thing they were BFFs, and River told Yardley where she’d go if she left the area. Yardley calls San Pedro to let them know there’s a fugitive in their area. She goes herself, finds Sue Ellen/Angie, who has Harmony with her. Yardley tells River she’s decided not to leave the US Attorney’s office after all, and that she’s going to move to the crimes against children section. Baldwin, for his part, has also told his boss he wants to move to the crimes against child department, which I suppose means the series will continue with these two working together in books detailing the number of ways people can be horrible to kids. I’m not squeamish, and I know these things happen, but I know I’ll also pick something else to read if it’s a choice between that and something like this, even if the bulk of the horrible acts of violence are left offscreen.
Remember consistencies? It was VERY difficult for me to believe that Yardley would just let River walk away – and take Harmony with her, even though I understood River’s motives. But she does just that, and I had been rooting for her to find her integrity again. Alas, I was disappointed. Hopefully, in the next book, Yardley will reflect on her choice to get too cozy with the victim of a case.
Four stars for a good premise for the murders and not just the investigation, but the way some investigators stop looking at things closely once they think they have the perp – looking at you, New Guy. Two stars for inconsistency and inaction/blind eye in Yardley. We’ll go with the middle and give it three stars out of five. Worth a read if you’re not too squeamish.
Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the review copy.