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Onyx reviews: Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/28/2015

Naming a community Promise Falls may have seemed like a quaint idea, but it's also tempting fate. In the modern vernacular, it sounds too close like Promise Fails and, indeed, the town's promise in the aftermath of the economic crisis has failed many of the residents of this upstate NY town.

One of the town's victims is David Harwood, last seen in Never Look Away, a widower who gave up a promising career as an editor on the city desk at the Boston Globe to return to his home town. His demanding job in Boston meant that he didn't get to spend much time with his young son, Ethan, so he sacrificed career for family. He goes back to his old position as a reporter for the Promise Falls Standard only to discover that the newspaper is shuttering its doors on his first day at work. Suddenly he's living with his parents and feeling like a failure.

So, he has plenty of time on his hands to worry about the health of his aging parents and conduct an unofficial investigation when his cousin falls under suspicion for a gruesome murder that rocks Promise Falls. Cousin Marla lost her child nearly a year earlier and has been in a fragile emotional state ever since. A few months earlier, she was caught attempting to steal a baby from the hospital and was saved by the fact that her mother was the institution's administrator. Now, she has another unexplained child on her hands, delivered by an angel, she claims, except the angel left a bloody handprint on her doorframe. The baby's stroller leads David to the crime scene and the as-yet undiscovered body of Rosemary Gaynor.

Since Marla's earlier incident isn't common knowledge, suspicion doesn't fall on her immediately, but the secrets of a small town don't stay buried for long, especially during a police investigation, so David feels compelled to get to the bottom of the murder. His quest runs parallel to that of Detective Duckworth (who has appeared in several earlier Barclay novels), an overweight twenty-year veteran of the force who has a number of other cases to deal with at the same time, including a rash of curious incidents that seem linked, but only in the most oblique fashion: attempted rapes on campus, vandalism at a failed carnival and nearly two dozen squirrel corpses found hanging in the woods.

David is also being courted by Randall Finley, the town's disgraced mayor who is attempting to stage a political comeback. Though caught with an underage prostitute, he thinks the townspeople have a short memory for that sort of thing and will remember instead how prosperous the town was under his leadership. He wants David to become his chief of staff, though David suspects his motives. 

Astute readers will start to put the pieces together from things left unsaid in dialog between shady characters. They will even feel that they've got it all figured out: who killed Rosemary Gaynor, and maybe even why. They will almost certainly be wrong. There is much more going on in this novel than it seems at first. 

Promise Falls spins a complex web of mystery. Sections are told in first person from David's point of view, but there is a lot happening that David doesn't know about, so there is a significant amount of third person narrative, too. As the enigmas pile up, readers will be forgiven for wondering how Barclay can possibly wrap everything up. Is it a spoiler to reveal that he doesn't? That this book finalizes some of the novel's business but leaves a fair amount open for a sequel?

Barclay has a casual style that is engaging and folksy. Occasionally his Canadian-ness shows through (mentions of Kijiji, for example, which is rival to Craigslist north of the border but a failed experiment in the US), but for the most part he is comfortable and conversant with the complex and tangled lives of small town America. He does a fine job of keeping all the plates spinning at the same time, and there are a lot of plates in this novel. It will be interesting to see where the mystery number 23 leads in a subsequent book.

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