Safe From Harm by Stephanie Jaye Evans is the sequel to Faithful Unto Death, a Bear Wells mystery set in Texas (available March 5, 2013).
On the face of it, Safe From Harm by Stephanie Jaye Evans is a traditional mystery—the second in a series set in Sugar Land, Texas, and starring minister, family man, and all-around good guy Bear Wells.
To simply take this tale at face value would be a colossal mistake, though, because Safe From Harm is so much more than your stereotypical traditional mystery.
This is partly due to the unique structure Evans chose for her tale; the book opens with the apparent suicide of troubled teen Phoebe Pickersley and then flashes back several months, essentially making Safe From Harm a murder mystery told in reverse.
It also doesn’t hurt that Evans is capable of achingly beautiful prose; at times, her writing is so lush and vivid that you just want to sit and stare at the pictures it paints in your mind:
She wanted to sleep here tonight. She wanted to take a hot bath with pink bath salts and a bar of soap that would float if it slipped from your wet fingers. She wanted to dry off with a thick, white towel, and put on pajamas, cotton ones, laundered thin, with flowers sprinkled over the top. And elastic-waist bottoms that came all the way down to her toes.
She wanted to curl up with the quilt on the little brass bed. The mom would bring her a cup of tea, hot and sweet and milky. The mom would read to her. “In the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon, and a picture of—the cow jumping over the moon…” The mom would smooth her hair off her face, and kiss her right here, the exact spot the tear had reached. And hear her say her prayers. And tuck her in.
She wanted to lie down on that soft, warm bed, and close her eyes, and go to sleep.
And never wake up.
But it’s gonna take more than a clever construct and pretty words to really and truly sell me on a book—to turn it into something I’ll not only love, but about which I will gush. No, what truly sets this book apart—what makes it—is what happens to the tale when you add Bear’s voice. Because his narration? It’s nothing short of magnificent.
Bear’s commentary makes Evans’s characters feel alive and gives them dimension:
Phoebe’s skirt barely covered her bottom. She was wearing so much metal that a retired guy on a Galveston beach was finding his metal detector mysteriously drawn to the northwest. The tank top she had on was cut low in the front and even lower in back and it was cropped short enough to expose her pierced and tattooed navel. Honestly. In suburban Texas. On a school day. At the church. It was dressing as an act of aggression.
She propped a fist on a hip, jutted the other hip forward and tilted her head down so as to look up at me through her lashes. “I wondered if we could have a talk,” she said. She was trying to channel Lauren Bacall—she’d probably never heard of Lauren Bacall, but that’s who she was doing.
It gives the story dimension, as well. Bear’s thoughts, his observations, his reactions—they make every event feel all the more real, all the more personal, and all the more devastating:
I said, “We shouldn’t move her…”
Annie gave me a sharp look. “This is Sugar Land, Bear, not CSI.”
I didn’t think it mattered where we were, but I crossed to Jo and gently lifted Phoebe from her arms. The girl was clammy, pale, and as light and boneless as a dead kitten. Light enough to crush your heart. Phoebe’s eyes stared and her bluish lips opened when her head fell back against my arm. Her open mouth was stained a deep purple, like a child who’d been eating popsicles, which made the alterations she had made to her body seem all the more like mutilations. Phoebe’s short hair was dyed black, but natural blonde roots showed beneath. Dime-sized gold circles rimmed the holes in hear earlobes, holes large enough to stick a pencil through. There was a gold ring through one nostril, another through an inky eyebrow. Her navel was pierced, and circled with a tattoo—a snake swallowing its tail. Her toes had black polish on the broken nails, and her bare, white feet where chafed and raw and scratched. It was those cold feet that did it to me. Poor thing, I thought. Poor, poor baby girl.
Most importantly, though, Bear is one of the only things that prevents this book from becoming unrelentingly bleak. Sure, Phoebe’s death affects him, but it doesn’t consume him; he’s still able to find happiness, grace, and even humor in everyday situations:
The pugs ignored their denim pillows and the fuzzy beanbags we’d laid out in the kitchen and cried piteously to be let into our room. Piteously and relentlessly and pugs don’t cry like dogs. They ululate. I looked it up. Skip the first definition, which pretty much says to howl like a dog—strike the whole dog-noise thing right out of your mind, because that’s not what pugs do. They hang their proficiency on the second definition: “to utter howling sounds, as in shrill, wordless lamentation; wail.” Their cry is piercing and high-pitched and unendurable.
I could have held out, but Annie Laurie gave in pretty quickly. I fetched their furry beanbags and put them on the floor next to Annie’s side of the bed because she has more floor room and because Tommy was treating me like a child molester. The pugs gave me injured looks and curled up without another protest. Baby Bear slept on the floor next to Jo—Annie Laurie and I fell asleep in each other’s arms.
I’d completely forgotten the snoring, and when the appalling sound began and Annie sprang up, I started laughing. Annie whacked me with her pillow, and Tommy added his tremolo to Mr. Wiggle’s gravel-grinding exhalations and then Annie got the giggles, too. I got her my Bose headphones and found some swim plugs for my ears and we went back to sleep. I’d have slept until morning had it not been for the pug farts.
A lot of authors shy away from the first-person narrative, but when done right, it can elevate a story. That’s certainly true with Safe From Harm; when told from Bear’s perspective, this isn’t just a murder mystery—it’s real life. And honestly, what more could you ask for from good fiction?
For more information, or to buy a copy, visit:
Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm, and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for Crimespree Magazine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.