Sunday, November 08, 2015

Texas Mystery, STILLWATER, from Melissa Lenhardt

There's a sure touch to the abundant dialogue carrying STILLWATER, unusual in an author's first book. But Texas writer Melissa Lenhardt is already writing across genres, with mystery, historical fiction, and women's fiction, and before this book went to print, it became a finalist for the 2014 Whidbey Writers' MFA Alumni Emerging Writers Contest. Which is a long way of saying: Other writers already think Lenhardt's writing is darned good.

So do I. In fact, I was tempted to say, "Move over, Craig Johnson" -- but Texas isn't Wyoming, and Jack McBride, new police chief for Stillwater, Texas, isn't Walt Longmire. He doesn't have that permanent wound on the verge of despair. Instead, arriving in town prepared to treat his previous work with the FBI as career step, he's capable, sober, and open to an amazing romance that starts as soon as he meets the town's newest business owner: Ellie Martin, proprietor of a brand-new bookstore. Too bad the two of them have so little time to bond in other ways -- Jack's teenaged son isn't ready for his father to date (after all, Jack's still technically married), plus a combination of a new crime and and old one put Jack into overtime right away. Can the hot-shot profiler bite into what's gone wrong, or is he too far out of his home environment?

In addition, Jack has a bigger problem: his predecessor. When his son Ethan wants to push the boundaries, Jack must admit what he already knows about the Stillwater job:
"It's because I'm the chief that I can't do whatever I want. The guy before me did too much of that. I have to set a new tone -- and fast."

"He took his kids to crime scenes?"

Jack sighed. "I don't know. He was corrupt, is what I meant. I have to be extra careful what I do. Taking my teenage son to interview witnesses is a bad way to start."
And of course, Jack's going to have to earn the town's respect and challenge his predecessor in person, if he wants to hold the job.

Lenhardt spins a great story, full of lively action, intriguing twists, and a heavy dash of romantic tension. And when Jack's efforts to woo the bookshop owner fall apart -- not his fault, huge factors beyond his control -- the cases heat up and challenge all his skills.

This is a smooth and enjoyable small-town Texas mystery, with well-chosen police issues, strong emotions (criminal and otherwise), and top-tier pacing in the tension and suspense. Maybe Jack McBride is a little too balanced to take the Western prize away from Walt Longmire and all his depression and losses ... but reading one series and then the other is going to be a lot of fun, as Lenhardt continues to push Jack forward in his challenged new police role. Glad to have found this author, looking forward to more.

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