Sweet After Death (A Detective Alice Madison Novel)
Another fine series by yet another author whose name is not as familiar to American readers of crime fiction as it ought to be, because Valentina Giambanco has created a compelling and realistic character in Detective Alice Madison.
A detective in the Seattle police department, Alice Madison and her partner, Detective Sergeant Kevin Brown, volunteer to assist the Chief of Police in Ludlow, Washington, in catching a killer. It is the first homicide in Colville County’s history, and Chief of Police Sangster and his two part-time deputies are overwhelmed and under experienced when it comes to investigating the horrific crime.
Sergeant Brown wonders “Were they going to be the harbingers of all that was to follow? Now that the county had had its first murder, how quickly would it catch up with the rest of the state in its darkest statistics?”
Small and isolated, just a few miles from the Canadian border, subject to severe cold weather, Ludlow with its 647 residents is outside the experience of Alice, Sergeant Brown, and Amy Sorensen, Seattle PD’s premiere criminalist. “Madison could hardly imagine life in a place where everybody knew who you were and what you did, and their parents had known your parents going back generations.”
The victim is Dr. Robert Dennen, Bobby to his friends. He is found in his burned-out car with evidence his wrists had been bound, and that the fire was arson.
To Madison “there is something particularly awful about arson, about someone setting a fire that would consume a human being.”
A bullet is found during the autopsy. No question that Dennen’s death is a deliberate murder. The only real question other than who killed him, is what was he doing on his road which is not a direct route from his late night house call to his home?
That question is much discussed at Ludlow’s two social gathering places: the Magpie Diner owed by Joyce Cartwell, and The Tavern, a bar and grill with a billiard table in back. Everyone discusses the case and shares all the information, mostly rumor and gossip, but no one can imagine why anyone would kill the doc. “He was a nice guy.”
Interspersed with novel’s narrative about the murder, is the story of Samuel Tanner, an undersized teenager who lives on a farm so isolated and so controlled by his father, Jeb Tanner, that Samuel has never seen or visited Ludlow, only a few miles away. Samuel’s whole life consists of obeying his father and playing The Hunt.
The Hunt is a game devised by Jeb in which one son is given a head start before his other sons hunt him down. The loser is confined to a timber shed, beaten by his father, and left alone with only minimal food and water for however long Jeb decides.
Outside of his family and a neighboring family, Samuel knows no one else, although he has seen Dr. Dennen once or twice. When he learns the doctor has been murdered, he wonders if his father knows anything.
As Samuel continues to be the prey in The Hunt, Ludlow prepares to hold a memorial service for the doctor. Madison, Sergeant Brown, Sangster and his two deputies, with backup provided by state police, prepare to keep watch for any stranger or anyone acting suspiciously. During the speeches a sniper murders Ty Edwards, the elderly owner of Ludlow’s only hardware store.
The two stories, that of Samuel and that of the three investigators, begin to merge when Madison and her partners learn that the only person with whom both Dr. Dennen and Ty Edwards argued is Jeb Tanner, Samuel’s father. Dr. Dennen confronted him over the welfare of the Tanner children, and Mr. Edwards refused to refund money on an item Tanner broke after purchasing it.
Would a man commit two murders over two such matters? When Dr. Dennen’s office is searched and Madison discovers that Ty Edwards’ medical records were searched the night of the doctor’s murder, she becomes convinced that the two murders are connected, and that Jeb Tanner is a good suspect.
“Madison knew Jeb Tanner’s kind, knew what that type of man could mean in the life of a child. How easy that life could be twisted and bent out of shape by someone like him.” The doctor would answer a plea for help from Tanner’s children, and it might have gotten him killed.
How Madison knows of Jeb Tanner kind of man is the third thread of the narrative, as episodes from the time she was 12 years old and ran away from home, are woven into the story. In most essentials, Madison’s and Samuel’s stories mirror each other’s. Each knows the helplessness of being in the control of a psychopath.
Sometimes the seeds of murder are sown in earliest childhood. Giambanco provides three interwoven stories: that of the child who escapes through individual effort; that of the child who endures and survives and hopes to one day escape; and that of the child who reinforces his own resentments and abuses and seeks escape through revenge.
The setting of Ludlow in the cold desolation of winter and the isolation of the community mirrors the soul-deep loneliness of children caught in the isolation imposed by others.
The psychology of the characters, the isolated setting, and the intricate plot blend together to create a seamless and compelling novel. Kudos to Ms. Giambanco for her achievement, and fans will wait impatiently for the next chapter in Alice Madison’s life.