Book Review: Death in the Family by Tessa Wegert
By Janet WebbFebruary 13, 2020
Death in the Family introduces Senior Investigator Shana Merchant as she attempts to solve a murder on a small, storm-struck island.
The setting for a Death in the Family is privately-owned Tern Island, one of the Thousand Islands. The Sinclair family owns it lock, stock, and baronial-splendor barrel. Senior Investigator Shana Merchant and her colleague, Investigator Tim Wellington get a call at the station: Jasper Sinclair, the youngest Sinclair sibling, is missing. Tim fills Shana in on their way to the policeboat.
“The Sinclairs are a New York family. In the fashion industry, I think,” he said. “They’re kind of a big deal. And this morning Jasper’s girlfriend woke up to an empty bed and the sheets soaked with blood.”
“But no body,” I said. “Huh, that’s … different.”
This is not what Shana anticipated when she left New York City police work behind for a job in the village of Alexandria Bay, New York.
Thirteen months ago, former NYPD detective Shana Merchant barely survived being abducted by a serial killer. Now hoping to leave grisly murder cases behind, she’s taken a job in her fiancé’s sleepy hometown in the Thousand Islands region of Upstate New York.
Blake Bram, the serial killer who almost killed Shana, is still at large. PTSD-fueled memories of him and the ordeal she suffered at his hands are never far from Shana’s consciousness. That said, she has a job to do.
Shana and Tim’s boat ride to Tern Island is harrowing, Shana is almost swept overboard by a vicious wave. Given the ferocity of the storm, will the state troopers will be able to join them? They’re met at the dock by Philip Norton, the family caretaker/factotum. Norton says after Abella (Jasper’s putative fiancé) sounded the alarm, the assembled family and friends searched frantically for Jasper, to no avail.
Shana’s most pressing need is to have time alone in Jasper’s blood-soaked bedroom. Alone, without back-up from EMT and CSI technicians.
The minute I set foot in Jasper’s bedroom I was no longer a plainclothes detective with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, but captain, crime-scene manager, and evidence tech. Until we got some help, it was all on us to secure the scene and interview everyone in the house. All I had to work with was Tim, and a bed that made clear why the Sinclairs called this murder.
She needs to observe and take notes, a task best done solo. Jasper’s grandmother Camilla makes it difficult—she doesn’t want to leave her favorite grandson’s bedroom—but former New Yorker Shana knows what buttons to push. She tells the elderly woman it’s imperative they “do things by the book.” Particularly if Jasper is hurt, rather than dead. Perhaps Shana exaggerates slightly.
“There’ll be attorneys involved here, down the line. If Jasper was attacked, whoever did it will be represented by someone determined to identify every mistake we make and use them against us to dismiss our findings. To dismiss the charge.”
Bulldog attorneys and gainful justice. I suspected this was language Mrs. Sinclair could understand, and immediately saw I was right.
Dealing with assorted Sinclairs, in-laws, and friends isn’t easy. They’re horrified when she tells them they’ll have to stay put in the living room and furthermore, turn in their electronic devices: “the elegant parlor was likened to a jail cell.” Their reaction evokes F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Rich Boy (1926): “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Shana “didn’t say one damn word, and eventually, the clamor died down.” She reminds them that there’s no “evidence of an intruder,” so they need to wise up because one of them could be next.
“Your comfort and convenience is not my priority. My priority is to keep the rest of you safe.”
The wind blew harder and the house gave a shudder. Against the windows the rain mimicked the sound of a million pebbles falling from a great height. A log split open with a crack like a gunshot, and this time I felt everyone tense.
Tessa Wegert has a dab hand with descriptions—they’re detailed and rich, dissolving the distance between readers and the crime scene.
The storm increases in intensity. The state troopers are busy rescuing boaters. Shana does have an off-site ally, Maureen McIntyre, the “first-ever female sheriff in the history of New York State… the woman was a legend.” McIntyre aka ‘Mac’ phones Shana asking how she can help. Other than Shana’s over-protective fiancé, only Mac knows Shana’s history with a serial killer. Shana’s afraid that Mac thinks she can’t cut it—she quickly tells her mentor that she has things under control and yes, there is something Mac can do.
“Speaking of help,” I said, anxious to change the subject, “have you got a few minutes to do some recon work on our witnesses?”
McIntyre missed her detective days, and I knew she’d love to pitch in. With a smile in her voice she said, “What do you need to know?”
Shana marshals her resources effectively. One asset is her power of perception and observation: she doesn’t miss a thing, be it an out-of-place object or a slight hesitation in a witness’s answer. She has a sardonic take on reality, like when she wryly agrees with Mac that it would be good if she could wrap up the mystery quickly.
“Thank you,” I said, “for acknowledging this is a serious case and not a goddamn game of Clue. Don’t worry, Mac, I’m all over it.”
Death in the Family is Tessa Wegert’s first Shana Merchant mystery. Given how close Canada is to Alexandria Bay, perhaps there’s a cross-border plot ahead, particularly since first-time novelist Wegert is a Canadian ex-pat. I look forward to future books exploring Shana’s troubled personal history, her burgeoning self-confidence in her new job, and her tentative professional partnership with Tim Wellington.