Annie Bartlett's father has been murdered. The loss drags her home, where she hasn't been lately and doesn't want to be -- to central Florida, where the wildlife can't compare with the teeth that her family's past can sink into her. And after facing her father's battered body, she gears up to visit the local jail, where the murderer is awaiting trial. The accused murderer, that is: Della Shiftlet, final lover and nearly wife in Annie's dad's life. There's little doubt about who battered Ed Barlett -- Della was found standing over the corpse with a bloodied boat oar that matched the damage to the body.
Annie's a gifted photographer, haunted by a presence of her mother; Helen Bartlett drowned when Annie was a child, just nine years old, and her coping mechanisms since then included talking to her mother in her thoughts, and maybe a bit more reality than that, in a long and sorrowful haunting. Nothing in her life, though, has prepared her for what happens at the jail when Della is led into the visiting room in an orange jumpsuit that sags around her ankles.
Annie didn't move. ... Why hadn't the sheriff warned Annie that Della Shiftlet looked exactly like her dead mother? ...Over the next few hours and days, in spite of the evidence, and Della's obvious motive -- to inherit the house and property that are rising in value thanks to a casino plan -- Annie begins to see reasons to doubt Della's guilt. But between her drug-addict sister, the callous violent men cutting into the scene, and the hard feelings in town about Annie showing up for the funeral after ignoring a nice man who missed her for years, well, things are confused. And increasingly dangerous, too.
"Look, you're the one who requested this visit," said Della. "So why don't you say what you have to say, and let me get back to my knitting?"
She needed a second, just a second, to work this out. Over the last twenty years, her mother's appearances had blended with Annie's reality, but Annie knew Helen wasn't real, had always known. Her mother was dead, drowned in Widow Lake. That Annie still communicated with her mother was, as one medical text had put it, "a grief-engendered coping mechanism, triggered by sudden loss at a young age." Cumbersome babble, but Annie understood, accepted.
This was no coping mechanism. This was Ed's killer, and the resemblance to Helen rattled Annie to the bone.
"So, are you going to tell me why you're here, or am I supposed to guess?"
"I wanted to see what a murderer looks like."
Della shifted uneasily under Annie's scrutiny. "Honey, I promise you, I did not kill your father."
Ziegler's tight plot, deft descriptions of mood and place, and willingness to dig into both small-town life and the pain of a child's losses, add up to a striking debut mystery that's worth adding to the shelf. Dark and haunted, the book does what I like best in a plot: lays the responsibility for straightening out the mess onto Annie, who needs to test the friendships, loves, and memories that surround her. Only if she can line them up accurately will she have a chance to save her sister, herself, and the past held hostage to the bitter present tense.
Although this is Ziegler's first crime novel, her story collection RULES OF THE LAKE came out in 1999 and includes the roots of this novel; an actor and dramatist, she also is the author of the play "Full Plates." Raised in central Florida, she now lives in the Richmond area of Virginia.