Book Review: Stillwater by Melissa Lenhardt

StillwaterStillwater
A Jack McBride Mystery
Melissa Lenhardt
Skyhorse Publishing, October 2015
ISBN 978-1-63450-226-9
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Big secrets run deep.

Former FBI agent Jack McBride took the job as Chief of Police for Stillwater, Texas, to start a new life with his teenage son, Ethan, away from the suspicions that surrounded his wife’s disappearance a year earlier.

With a low crime rate and a five-man police force, he expected it to be a nice, easy gig; hot checks, traffic violations, some drugs, occasional domestic disturbances, and petty theft. Instead, within a week he is investigating a staged murder-suicide, uncovering a decades’ old skeleton buried in the woods, and managing the first crime wave in thirty years.

For help navigating his unfamiliar, small-town surroundings, Jack turns to Ellie Martin, one of the most respected women in town—her scandal-filled past notwithstanding. Despite Jack’s murky marriage status and the disapproval of Ethan and the town, they are immediately drawn to each other.

As Jack and Ellie struggle with their budding relationship, they unearth shattering secrets long buried and discover the two cases Jack is working, though fifty years apart, share a surprising connection that will rattle the town to its core.

At first blush, Stillwater seems like a typical small town in Texas, the kind where everybody knows your name and most of the details of your life. It seems like the perfect place for a former FBI agent to get his own life back together after some heavy events on the job and in his home. It seems like a good place to be a single father to his young teenaged son.

It takes less than two days for Jack McBride, the town’s new police chief, to decide Stillwater isn’t such a typical low-crime town after all when two bodies are found and even less than that for thirteen-year-old Ethan to be absolutely sure he’s going to hate everything about this place and, by extension, his dad for making him move here. Fortunately, Ethan can’t sustain a serious hatred but he can certainly make his intense displeasure felt. Jack’s first day on the job hasn’t started well and the next week is going to be chockful of stuff guaranteed to make his head swim. Solving the murders of Rosa and Gilberto Ramos is the bare beginning.

Jack and Ethan may have some difficulty fitting in but they’re both vividly drawn characters and I like them both very much, warts and all. Ethan does his best to annoy his dad but that’s what unhappy teens do and I had a lot of sympathy for him. When bad things happen to a kid, he needs his familiar surroundings to help him cope; it’s just Ethan’s bad luck that familiar surroundings are the wrong place for his dad to handle the disappearance of his wife and the consequences of a case gone sour. The whispers and speculations have driven Jack to find a new home and a new job.

Many of the other characters in Stillwater are just as memorable for a variety of reasons from the bank president to teens Olivia and Troy and Ellie is a woman with issues that are easy to understand and to commiserate with. She, too, is beginning a new phase of her life and the coming week will hold a surprise or two for her. In fact, surprises are in store for quite a lot of people in Stillwater and one in particular will have some lasting effects. Those lasting effects are going to hover in my mind until Ms. Lenhardt‘s next book in what I hope will be a long series comes out and I’m sorry I have to wait.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2015.

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An Excerpt from Stillwater

CHAPTER ONE

Thursday

A line of flashing blue and red lights led the way to a pale green single-wide trailer on the north edge of Stillwater, Texas. Firemen, sheriff deputies and EMTs huddled in front of the house, talking, looking around, and laughing. All eyes turned to Jack McBride’s car as it pulled into the dirt packed front yard, which doubled as the driveway.

Jack set the alarm on his phone and said, “Stay in the car,” to his 13-year old son, Ethan. He opened the door, got out and leaned back in. “I mean it.”

“I know, Dad.”

Neighbors grouped behind yellow crime scene tape. Some wore pajamas, others wore work clothes, women held babies, children craned their necks to see better, eager for information to share at school. A young officer guarded them.

It was Officer Nathan Starling’s file that fell from Jack’s lap when he was startled awake by the early morning call. If Jack hadn’t read Starling was the youngest and newest member of the force he would have guessed it from his role as crowd control. Starling shifted on his feet and looked over his shoulder at the crowd, as if debating whether he should leave his post to introduce himself or stay put. Jack waved an acknowledgement to him and moved toward the trailer.

Jack nodded at the group of first responders as he walked by and received a couple of muttered hellos in return. Some looked at Ethan and back at Jack. Jack climbed the uneven concrete steps, stopped at the door and put on paper booties and gloves. Behind him, he heard a low conversation start back up, the words “alone,” “wife,” and “no one knows” carrying across the yard as if announced through a bullhorn. He walked into the trailer. The screen door slapped shut behind him, cutting off the rest of the conversation.

The smell of chili, paprika and cumin hung in the air of the trailer. Flimsy wooden cabinets topped by a chipped orange Formica counter were wedged against the back wall of the main room by a strip of ugly, peeling linoleum. Brown shag carpet, flattened by years of traffic, marked off the living area of the room. Left of the door, under a loud window unit dripping condensation, sat a couch of indeterminate color too large for the room. A black haired man with blood-shot eyes and a green tinge underneath his dark skin sat on the couch, chewing his nails. He looked up at Jack and stopped chewing, the signal for his leg to start bouncing. A bull-necked police officer, his thumbs crooked underneath his gun belt, stood guard over the man.

“Officer Freeman,” Jack said.

If Michael Freeman was surprised Jack knew who he was, he didn’t show it. His face remained expressionless.

“Chief McBride.”

A third officer stood at the mouth of the hallway to the right with a portly elderly man. Relief washed over the officer’s face. He moved forward, hand outstretched. “Chief McBride,” he said. “Miner Jesson. This here is Doc Poole.”

Jack shook their hands. “Sorry to meet you under these circumstances, Dr. Poole.”

“Helluva case to get on your first day, eh?” the doctor said.

Jack nodded and gave a brief smile. He pulled gloves and more paper booties from his coat pocket and handed them to Jesson and the doctor. Jack walked down the hall and entered the room. Jesson stopped at the door.

“Gilberto and Rosa Ramos,” Jesson said. “Found dead this morning by Juan Vasquez.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the man sitting on the couch. “Says he’s Rosa’s brother. He don’t speak much English but from what I gathered, he came to pick Gilberto up for work and heard the baby screaming. When no one answered, he let himself in. Door was open. Found them just like that.”

They were both nude. The woman lay facedown, covering half of man’s body. The right side of the man’s head was blown across the pillow. Blood and brain matter were sprayed across the bed, under the woman and onto the floor. A clump of long dark hair was stuck to the window with blood. Her right arm was extended across the man’s chest, a gun held lightly in her grip.

Jack walked around the bed.

Doc Poole stood next to Officer Jesson. “It takes a special kind of anger to kill someone you are in the middle of fucking, doncha think?” Doc Poole said. “Ever see that in the F-B-I?” Derision dripped from every letter.

Jack ignored him. “Where’s the baby?”

Jack hoped the revulsion on Jesson’s face meant scenes like this were rare in Stillwater. If he wanted to deal with shit like this on a regular basis, he would have taken a better paying job in a larger town.

“Officer Jesson?” Jack said. “Where’s the baby?”

“Oh. It’s with a neighbor.”

“Has anyone called CPS?”

“Why?”

“To take care of the baby.”

“The neighbor offered.”

“And, what do we know about this neighbor?”

He shrugged. “She didn’t speak much English.”

“So, she could be in the next county by now?”

“Oh, I doubt that,” Jesson said. “She seemed like a nice sort. Very motherly.”

Jack cocked his head and puzzled over whether his most senior officer was ignorant, naive or an amazing judge of character.

He turned his attention to Doc Poole. “What’s the time of death?”

“Sometime last night.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Didn’t see the need. Seems pretty obvious what happened.”

“Oh, are you a detective?”

“No. I’m a general practitioner.”

“You’re the JP, aren’t you?”

“No. I used to be.” He chuckled. “Too old for this now.”

“Yet, here you are.”

“JP is on the way, Chief,” Jesson said.

Jack kept his focus on Doctor Poole. “So you heard this over the radio and decided to come? Or did someone call you?”

“Well, I —”

“Do you have the instruments necessary to establish a time of death?”

“Not with me, but —”

“Then get off my crime scene.”

The little man straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin. “I can see why Jane Maxwell liked you.” He started to leave but turned back. “We do things different here in Stillwater.”

“Not anymore we don’t,” Jack said.

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About the Author

Melissa LenhardtMelissa Lenhardt writes mystery, historical fiction, and women’s fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in Heater Mystery Magazine, The Western Online, and Christmas Nookies, a holiday romance anthology. Her debut novel, Stillwater, was a finalist for the 2014 Whidbey Writers’ MFA Alumni Emerging Writers Contest. She is a board member of the DFW Writers’ Workshop and vice president of the Sisters in Crime North Dallas Chapter. Melissa lives in Texas, with her husband and two sons.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Stillwater by Melissa Lenhardt

  1. This is simply my type of novel: I even love the title. Thank you for including a chapter: Hmmmmm, it makes me want to read it all the more.

  2. Pingback: Book Tour, Review & Giveaway: Stillwater (A Jack McBride Mystery) by Melissa Lenhardt | #BookReview - FictionZeal

  3. Pingback: My Favorite Books of 2015 | Buried Under Books

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