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Onyx reviews: The Last Innocent Hour by Barbara Taylor Sissel

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 2000

Beth Cunningham, her husband Charlie and their young daughter Chrissie, return to Beth's family home in Wither Creek, Texas by Greyhound bus. Charlie's penchant for amassing enormous gambling debts forced them to flee from their home in Miami.

Beth has not seen her mother, Lucy Clayton, in five years. She has also kept the secrets of why she left home from her husband. After the death of her father, killed in an accident with a horse, Beth's mother became an alcoholic and fell prey to a young gold-digger named Jason Tinker, whose attentions were not confined to the elder Clayton.

Wither Creek is not the ideal place for the Cunningham family to lick their wounds, but it is the only option available to them. Beth had been led to believe that her mother had finally extricated herself from Tinker's influence. She would not have returned home otherwise. She soon learns that Tinker is still a dominating presence, but her mother, at least, has conquered her drinking problem and is ready to resume a relationship with her daughter.

Tinker's primary interest in the Claytons is their farm, land that is crucial to a Japanese real estate deal worth millions. Tinker fears that Beth's return will jeopardize his plans, so he accelerates his pace to get the needed signatures from Lucy Clayton. Tinker orchestrates a confrontation that enables him to show Beth that he intends to flex his muscles and won't go quietly into the night.

The incident and ensuing argument over the horse that was responsible for Beth's father's death causes Charlie to leave Beth, where he naturally gravitates to his own personal demon: gambling on horses at the Houston Race Track. After an unprecedented turn of good luck, Charlie returns to the Clayton house, hoping to reconcile with his wife. Instead, he walks in on a terrifying scene - Lucy Clayton has fallen to her death after a struggle with Jason Tinker. It is Charlie, however, who is suspected of the crime and he is not even able to prove that Beth is back in Wither Creek with him. With no Perry Mason to get him off from the circumstantial crime, and a local conspiracy driven by greed against him, Charlie has little defense.

To complicate matters, Beth, who witnessed her mother's death, loses her memory after a fall in the woods while running away from Jason Tinker. She is unaware that her husband is standing trial for murder, and she is the only person who could bear witness on his behalf. Chrissie is placed in a foster home because Beth can't prove that she is the little girl's mother.

While Taylor Sissel's first novel relies on some relatively familiar mystery tropes - a character discovered under suspicious circumstances at the scene of a crime they did not commit, a convenient case of amnesia - the writing is strong and the characters and their motivations are clearly drawn. Charlie's predicament goes from bad to worse when Tinker convinces himself that merely having him convicted of murder is insufficient.

"The Last Innocent Hour" was published in The Woodlands by Panther Creek Press. Veteran author Guida Jackson started Panther Creek after recognizing how hard it is for new authors to be accepted by the big presses. In the next two years, she plans to release novels by over a half-dozen local authors, along with a book of poetry by the son of Ezra Pound.

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