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Onyx reviews: Riders on the Storm by Ed Gorman

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 08/02/2014

When a man is found next to the body of man with whom he had a recent and very public altercation, covered in blood, in possession of the murder weapon and unable to explain the situation, the police can be forgiven for thinking they've solved the crime. Will Cullen's popularity in Black River Falls, Iowa, was already waning after he joined an anti-war group. Sam McCain is the only person who believes Cullen is innocent and is ready to defend him when no one else will. Cullen is still torn up over an incident in Vietnam where he accidentally killed a little girl.

McCain was destined for Vietnam when an incident at boot camp left him unfit for service and prone to debilitating migraines. He now works as a lawyer and as his own private investigator. It's 1971, and his feelings about the war are complex, as are those of his friends and neighbors. The veterans who return wounded and mentally affected are shunned or ignored (except when their presence is seen as politically expedient), but anyone who speaks out against the conflict is branded a communist.

The murder victim was also a friend of McCain's. Steve Donovan had just been hand-picked by the local Senator, who is behind in the polls and looking for a Hail Mary, as candidate for Congress. It was shortly after the announcement that Donovan went off script to belittle and assault Cullen in full view of a party of political supporters. Later that night, Cullen calls McCain, but when he arrives at the family residence, Cullen is missing.

McCain is in a pretty good place personally. His relationship with the woman who had a crush on him in school is developing nicely, and he's getting along like gangbusters with her two young daughters. Mary is understandably concerned by some of McCain's gung-ho approaches to private investigation, even though she understands how supportive he is of his friend. She doesn't share his unswerving belief in Cullen's innocence—she's more interested in building a family with him, something that an arrest for his occasionally illegal activities would thwart.

For his part, Cullen is unable to provide much of a defense. He is more or less catatonic for most of the book. When he does manage to speak, he seems to incriminate himself. He's in therapy with a husband/wife team who are sympathetic to McCain's cause but confidentiality issues prevent them from helping. The new sheriff in town, who wants to be McCain's buddy, has tunnel vision regarding the case even though he tries to be sympathetic to McCain's investigation.

Riders on the Storm (not to be confused with Gorman's Western Storm Riders), the tenth book in Gorman's McCain series, is steeped in the early 1970s, with frequent references to the protest songs of the era, including the Doors song that gives rise to the book's title, which was released in 1971. Women are struggling to become more independent and outspoken, and support for the war is on the decline, though still contentious. This is a brief novel, but it packs a lot of punch. It is a very open question whether or not McCain is right to believe in Cullen's innocence. Even when his investigation reveals some untoward business dealings involving the victim and his partners, not to mention romantic dalliances and affairs, these secrets don't necessarily add up to murder.

The murder mystery is well crafted, with a couple of twists at the end that even the most discerning crime fan is unlikely to anticipate. Gorman has an excellent sense of the era and of the sometimes mundane and occasionally brutal life of a private investigator. McCain is fairly unique among fictional PIs in that he has strong personal connections, real friends, and a life outside of his profession, although he sometimes seems willing to give many of these up to solve a crime. Gorman has hinted that this might be the last McCain book. It would be a real shame if that were the case.

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