The Evidence Room by Cameron Harvey is a police procedural set amidst the swampy land of Florida's Cooper Bayou where a girl returns home to the scene of a crime that shook her world 20 years prior (available June 2, 2015).
In 1989, Cooper’s Bayou was shaken to the core by the murder of one of the town’s young mothers. Her four-year-old daughter, Aurora Atchison, was left at the local grocery store. Her abusive husband was the obvious suspect, but he escaped and hasn’t been seen in town since.
The detective working the murder brings Aurora to the medical examiner’s office in the wee hours of the morning. He can find no one else to watch the little girl while he works the case.
The back closet was stacked high with unclaimed property from the deceased who had come through, ready to be boxed for the evidence room. James wondered if there were some kids’ toys or games back there.
“I’ll be right back,” he told her, but when he turned on the light in the closet, there she was right at his heels, a solemn little soldier, grasping the leg of his pants in her fist. It was a small gesture, the kind of thing that kids probably did all the time, but James felt an odd tightness in his throat and an unfamiliar warmth bloomed in his cheeks. He looked down at her, and she yawned.
“Are you tired?”
She nodded. He was an idiot. Of course she was tired; it was almost five in the morning. James steered her towards his office and point to the couch.
She shrugged off her windbreaker, clambered up on the couch, and curled into a ball, hugging her knees to her chest. The first few fingers of sunlight were beginning to poke through the blinds in front of them. James pressed the blinds closed and folded the small jacket over his chair.
And then he noticed it.
Underneath the tag inside the little jacket, printed in runny blue Magic Marker letters.
Aurora Atchison. The name hit him like a fist, the shock of it traveling the length of his spine.
He said it out loud without thinking. She bolted up and stared at him, her eyes somehow clearer now, as though she had finally been able to hoist herself out of a dream.
This passage deals with just one of the mysteries included in this interesting police procedural. When Detective Josh Hudson gets demoted to the Evidence Room, he fears his career in the police department is one step away from being over. His job was jeopardy due to his willingness to compromise with a known criminal to find information about his sister, who left home when she was eighteen. Her absence is only one of the secrets that keeps Josh’s life in turmoil.
I have to say the bayou and its murky waters doesn't just serve as the setting for this entertaining novel. Cameron Harvey has written about it in such a way to make it a character too. Cooper’s Bayou is just south of Tampa, Florida, and it’s a beautiful, mysterious area. I lived on the bay in St. Petersburg until recently and walking along the water is always a relaxing and educational experience. It’s not just the creatures that glide along in the water (though there’s little more exciting than seeing an alligator), it’s the foliage, the huge trees with their lacy Spanish moss and giant knobby knees, and the turtles, water fowl, and insects everywhere, making the leaves rustle and inhabiting the shadows. You have this sense of never being completely alone because the breezes feel heavy with secrets.
Like most people in Florida, the people in Cooper’s Bayou have all kinds of relationships with the water. The shrimpers make their living from it, the tour guides give tourists a peak at the wildlife and plant life in the area, while others enjoy leisure boating, fishing, and various entertaining watersports. Whether it’s the ocean, the waters of the bay, a deep blue lake with great fishing, or a swamp buzzing with a life of its own, Florida’s waters draw people to them.
Because Josh knows what it is to lose a loved one without knowing what really happened, he feels compelled to help Aurora find out the truth about her mother’s murder. As soon as the two begin working together, however, Aurora begins getting threats. That’s when she learns why her grandfather had placed voodoo charms throughout the little bayou house where’d Aurora lived with her parents until her mother’s death. As they get closer to the truth, the incidents increase, and it’s obvious Aurora may be in danger of meeting her mother’s fate. Of course, none of these threats will keep Aurora from finding the truth.
Ahead of her, Josh motioned towards a row of houses on stilts. The whole row of them looked abandoned, with their wilting porches and broken screen doors, kudzu curling out of every open window. In front of them, the bayou appeared stagnant but Aurora could feel the water thumping beneath their feet, pulling the ground below them lumpy and uneven. The house closest to the bowed towards the water, a sole cracked plastic lawn chair half submerged in front of it. A porch light coated in bugs dangled above a rotting doorway. A gaping hole in the roof was ringed with a cluster of yellow songbirds.
Aurora had been born in one of these houses.
“This is it,” he announced from what had been a front yard. Two planks of wood formed an X across a splintering yellow door, and the yard had succumbed to weeds and trash. Beau darted around the side of the house to explore the tall grass. Aurora took a seat on the top step and Josh sat beside her.
“Do you remember it at all?”
She’d expected some kind of revelation, some moment of clarity, but looking up at the house, all she felt was a suffocating sadness, an unexpressed grief for the people who had once lived there.
I think Cameron did a great job of dealing with the emotions that surface when you’re returning to a place you don’t really know to uncover its secrets about you.
Truthfully, I enjoyed this book right up to the ending, which I found quick and a little unsatisfying. It just seemed abrupt and I had to read it twice to be sure the author had answered all my questions. One other note: I’ve never heard a Southerner use the word “y’all” as a singular pronoun. It always refers to two or more people. This was somewhat distracting for me.
You’ll find enough mysteries in this book to keep you intrigued, and you may even find yourself so curious, you’ll want to visit one of the many shadowy bayous. After all, what could be hiding in a sleepy little Florida town?
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Leigh Neely is a former journalist and editor who now writes fiction and articles for regional magazines. She and her writing partner, Jan Powell, are the authors of Second Nature by Neely Powell, and the trilogy, “The Witches of New Mourne.” She also writes for the popular blog, WomenofMystery.net. Her short stories are in the anthologies, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices and Murder New York Style: Family Matters, along with stories by some of her favorite writer friends from the New York/Tri-State Sisters in Crime.
Read all of Leigh Neely's posts for Criminal Element.