Sarah Graves, Maine author of the clever "Home Repair Is Homicide" thriller series, launched a new series this month with WINTER AT THE DOOR. The great plus of introducing protagonist Lizzie Snow, a homicide investigator from Boston who's just taken a job in the Great North Woods of Maine, is Lizzie's knowledge of crime and investigation -- she's a professional, and used to taking care of herself. Within limits.
But Graves gives us a glimpse -- and only a glimpse -- of the wounds still bleeding for Lizzie. Something's gone terribly wrong in her family. It appears one of her relatives may have survived: a nine-year-old niece, Nicki. And the tip Lizzie Snow has, from her former (and faithless) boyfriend Dylan, says Nicki may be a hostage of some sort, living in the near-lawless wilderness of Aroostook County. That's why Lizzie's taken the anti-career move to the rural region. And it's already looking grim: Instead of a patrol slot, Sheriff Cody Chevrier has a grubby little office for her, and an assignment in community policing. Color Lizzie NOT impressed.
Still, Chevrier's move is a complex one. He's not just staffing an unexpected grant-funded position -- he's sneaking an experienced homicide cop into a situation where retired police officers around him are dying of assumed suicide, and he's convinced they've been murdered.
Lizzie does luck out in adopting, or really being adopted by, a local assistant willing to rehab her office practically overnight, bring in the communications gear she needs, and even walk her suddenly added canine companion for her. Of course, the Tattoo Kid -- nicknamed Spud, in this wide potato-farming region -- looks like a walking nightmare, with his piercings and more. But he's surprisingly competent, and for a while, Lizzie feels like she's got some good luck after all.
That is, until Dylan Hudson shows up, in the very manly flesh, to complicate almost everything. Turns out he's tracking criminal activity up here, too, and Lizzie can't deny there's still chemistry between them, even though she has every reason never to trust him in her personal life again.
Back to the title: This suspenseful two-track criminal investigation opens at the end of October, which in the north country really is the season of "winter at the door." But couldn't that expression also apply to the cold evil of a malicious psychopath loose in the area? And could Lizzie's missing niece be part of the same possible crime wave that's killing the sheriff's old colleagues?
Graves alternates points of view between Lizzie and the criminals here, which in many mysteries would lead to some sympathy for the wrongdoers. But not this time. In fact, I hadn't realized this Maine author could write the dark side so deftly and effectively -- I shuddered at a number of points.
This one is a good winter read, tightly plotted and all too believable. And if I quibbled with a couple of issues -- the distraction of not one but two suitors for Lizzie, her lack of teamwork, and a finale that didn't quite follow through on the level of evil proposed earlier in the book -- I also found this a compelling start to an exciting series. Grab this first title, and clear room on the shelf for the next one: The Girls She Left Behind. Considering the plot threads left unresolved at the end of WINTER AT THE DOOR, I'm already shivering with foreboding. I'll be following Lizzie Snow, for sure.