|M.K. Preston: Song of the Bones|
Intrigue Press (Hardcover), ISBN 1-890768-54-5
The strapline on the cover of this novel reads "A Chantalene Mystery," and the blurb gives little indication that the book might be anything other than a cozy murder mystery. In fact, although it displays many elements of the mystery, most particularly in its first half, Song of the Bones turns out to be a thriller -- and a very engaging and good one.
Chantalene (a sleuth with a past, presumably treated in Preston's earlier novel Perhaps She'll Die) works as assistant to her lover, lawyer/accountant Drew, in the small town of Tetumka, Oklahoma. Her best friend Thelma, the local postmistress, comes to them with the request that they try to track down her husband Billy Ray, who walked out of her life decades ago but is still co-signatory to the papers on her property, now eagerly sought by an oil company.
Not long after the search begins, a handsome stranger walks in and announces himself as the long-lost Billy Ray, returned to attempt a reconciliation with his wife. Thelma accepts him as the genuine article, and at first all seems blissful. But within days she becomes convinced he's an impostor -- and calls on Chantalene to help her establish the truth. Before long the tale emerges of how, all those decades ago, Billy Ray and his brother Donnie Ray, together with co-conspirator Songdog, robbed a mob-run casino that routinely fleeced Native Americans. Billy Ray fled so the vengeful mobsters wouldn't connect Thelma to the crime.
Meanwhile, unknown to Chantalene, Songdog, now an elderly hermit, decides Chantalene is a shapeshifted version of his step-daughter and lover Liddy, whom he murdered many years ago when she attempted to steal the proceeds of the robbery. He plans to murder Liddy's "new incarnation." Just to add to Chantalene's dangers, the oil company chasing Thelma's land evidently harbors dangerous secrets, while Drew's eye-popper of an ex-wife looks ready to claim back her man.
This sets the stage for further murders…and more than once before the book's end Chantalene must fight for her life.
The telling of this excellent tale proves deceptively genial, mimicking the laid-back ambience of the folk of back-of-beyond Tetumka. This serves to increase the impact of the thriller elements of the plot when they arrive. They land like a punch suddenly thrown at you by an old friend in the middle of an amicable chat. In places, indeed, the writing approaches a definite lyric beauty, enhanced by its lack of self-consciousness. Alas, it's also occasionally rendered rebarbatively muddy by an inability -- shared by so many current American writers and their editors -- to master the pluperfect tense.
But one can live with that relatively small flaw. Certainly Song of the Bones is overall impressive and enjoyable enough that I for one will be looking out for the earlier Perhaps She'll Die -- and for future M.K. Preston novels.
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