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Onyx reviews: How it Happened by Michael Koryta

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 03/11/2018

The local police haven't been able to get anything out of Kimberly Crepeaux, a diminutive twenty-two-year-old drug addicted single mother who turned herself in, claiming to know what happened to Jackie Pelletier and Ian Kelly. The couple have been missing and presumed dead for months. Pelletier and her father are well known and much loved in Port Hope, Maine. Kelly's father, a prominent DC attorney, has been applying pressure to get the FBI involved in the investigation when the Maine State Police can't get anywhere with Kimberly. 

Special Agent Rob Barrett, who has been with the Agency less than a year but who is an interrogation specialist with an innate nose for the truth, volunteers to take a crack at her. He knows the area well, having spent summers there as a child, and he knows many of the people who may be involved in the case. High on his list is Mathias Burke, a cottage caretaker and landscaper who is well regarded in the community as something of an entrepreneur, but who Barrett has long suspected of being a sociopath.

Kimberly yields to Barrett's interrogation techniques, although it takes him several weeks to get her to open up, and she lays out the sequence of events from the evening the young couple disappeared in a rambling but coherent first person narrative that comprises the novel's first chapter. She implicates Burke and describes in exquisite detail how the killings played out and where the bodies were dumped. Barrett feels she's telling the truth and goes all in on her confession, although there is some resistance among locals that Burke could be involved, and a few of the details don't make much sense. Why haul the bodies off to a pond when there's a perfectly good body of water nearby, for example.

Divers find nothing in the pond after an extensive search, but Barrett refuses to accept that he may have been outmaneuvered by a heroin addict with a long history of lying. Then new evidence appears that implicates another individual, calling into question every aspect of Kimberly's story. Barrett persists, a suspect is is killed during the ensuing inquiry, and he ends up exiled to a post in Montana, his once promising career derailed, perhaps permanently.

But he can't let the case go and he sneaks back to Maine several months later to conduct an unauthorized investigation. He turns up a series of seemingly unrelated deaths caused by a deadly batch of drugs. One of the victims was—if she's to be believed—with Kimberly on the night of the murders. He knows he's on the trail of something big when an attempt is made on his life and other witnesses are killed or bought off.

At the same time, Barrett is trying to reconnect with his former lover, Liz Street, a reporter for a small town newspaper, and dealing with the ghosts of his past: his mother, whose body he found at the bottom of the basement steps when he was eight, his father, who died a few years later under a cloud of suspicion and his grandfather, the source of that cloud.

The novel explores the opioid crisis that is afflicting and killing untold thousands across America, but it is also a well-designed and constructed who/how-dunnit. Many details are revealed during the course of Barrett's unauthorized investigation that end up playing a significant part in the solution to the mystery. Despite his obsessive nature and single-minded focus on Burke, Barrett is a likable protagonist, but Koryta allows readers to wonder whether his tunnel vision is causing him to pursue a false trail when all the (rather convincing) physical evidence points in a different direction. A top-notch thriller/mystery, and hopefully not the last readers will see of Rob Barrett and Liz Street.

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