Book Review: From the Grave by David Housewright

In the next mystery in David Housewright's award-winning series, a past case comes back to haunt Twin Cities P.I. McKenzie as a stolen sum of money threatens to resurface.

Retired cop and unofficial P.I. Rushmore McKenzie finds himself tangling with ghosts when his first love, Shelby Dunston, attends a psychic medium’s public reading and hears the woman announce his name in connection with a missing fortune.

“Hannah,” she said, “why did the dead man chant McKenzie’s name?”

 

“I really can’t say. Most people in our profession follow a code of ethics about the information we disclose…”

 

“You don’t understand. I’m pretty sure I know McKenzie. I know him very well.”

 

Hannah stared at the woman for a few beats as if trying to judge her honesty.

 

“What’s his profession?” Hannah asked.

 

“I have no idea what to call him now, but McKenzie used to be a police officer like my husband.”

 

Hannah grabbed Shelby’s wrist and squeezed hard.

 

“He’s in danger,” she said. “If you are really his friend, you must tell him, he’s in danger.”

 

“Why? What kind of danger?”

 

“The man, the dead man, he wanted Ryan to kill McKenzie. He said that he would tell Ryan where he hid the money, but only if he killed McKenzie first.”

It’s true that twenty-two years earlier, when McKenzie was a green rookie, he did kill a man named Leland Hayes, an armored truck thief, during a shootout. And it’s true that Leland managed to hide the $600,000 he stole before that deadly encounter—and that half-a-million has been missing ever since.

But still: McKenzie has always been a man of logic and science. Can he believe these so-called psychics when they tell him an angry ghost has put a hit out on him?

“Don’t you care that a dead man is threatening your life?”

 

“Okay, a couple of things. Thing one—I don’t know that he’s threatening my life. Thing two—what’s he going to do? Hide my car keys? Drag chains across the floor of our condo?”

 

“Hardwood floors,” Nina said. “He had better not leave a mark.”

 

“You’re missing the point,” Shelby said. “It doesn’t matter if you believe it. What matters is if Ryan believes it, or someone else that the dead man might contact.”

 

Bobby waved his beer in his wife’s direction. “There are a lot of nut jobs out there,” he said.

 

“Excuse me?” Shelby said.

 

“I’m agreeing with you, honey. McKenzie, you should be careful.”

 

Nina laughed. “I’ve been telling him that for years,” she said. “Does he listen?”

It soon becomes apparent that even if McKenzie doesn’t believe, plenty of others do. Like Ryan Hayes, Leland’s son and accomplice, who, at seventeen, went to prison for nearly twenty-five years and has only just been paroled. Or Leland’s old buddies, a no-good crew who may be in their sixties now but could still be plenty dangerous. 

Then there are those working in the shadowy world of spirits and psychics: Hannah Braaten, the woman who began all of this madness with her bombshell of a reading, a former model and true believer who may turn out to be a femme fatale. Her mother Esti, who has plenty of secrets and ambition. The young Kayla Janas, a college student who actually seems to be the real deal. And the occult shop owner LaToya Cane, who proves to have a past connection to the Hayes men…

When people begin following him and hiding trackers on his car, when a drive-by shooting brings detectives to his door, and when paranormal happenings become too convincing to reason away with logic, McKenzie is forced to face both the past and the prospect that ghosts are more than just campfire stories.

It’s hard to believe that From the Grave is the seventeenth installment in the McKenzie series. Most authors, by the seventeenth book, start to phone things in; the characters feel stale, the plot lacks oomph, the sizzle is gone. 

Not so here. Housewright continues to deliver solid gold goods. It helps that he’s crafted such a winning, likable hero in McKenzie, a guy who manages to be chivalrous without being chauvinistic, who’s laidback with his friends and yet also tough enough to face down villains with convincing gruffness. 

He’s a modern noir detective with more heart than cynicism, and a little older than most of the heroes in this genre; there’s a wonderful exchange in From the Grave where a character calls him a Boomer and he promptly responds, “Hey, hey. Gen X.” 

It also helps that Housewright refuses to limit himself when it comes to story fodder. McKenzie’s exploits don’t follow a narrow, traditional trajectory. He’s chased down murderers and embezzlers, yes, but also stolen Stradivariuses and paintings, missing bone marrow matches, salsa factory saboteurs, and now ghosts—if it’s criminal or mysterious, it’s fair game for our guy. 

And though the McKenzie series hasn’t delved into the supernatural like this before, it all feels oddly natural in the course of things. Housewright does a superb job of balancing debunking logic with eerie moments. We, the audience, and McKenzie himself can explain away most of the happenings in Grave—but not all. And, really, the best ghost stories are the ones that leave plenty open to interpretation. 

“Are you saying that sometimes producers will fake EVPs?”

 

“I’m saying that you sometimes hear what you want to hear, and what you want to hear more often than not helps support a dramatic plot line. Except, this one time—I’ll never forget it. We recorded an EVP of a woman’s voice, speaking clear as a bell. She said, ‘He’s sleeping now.’ It was captured near a fresh, unmarked grave that turned out to be a newly buried child. It still raises goose bumps when I think of it…”

The colorful characters follow the unpredictable plot in a chilly Minnesota setting that’s so evocative we can practically see our breath in the air. Another of Housewright’s strengths is how vividly he paints the picture of St. Paul, making it just as compelling and murky a locale as New York City or L.A. If you’ve never met McKenzie before, From the Grave is a stellar starting point in the series. Sure, there are allusions to previous cases. And there are plenty of tidbits that reward longtime readers. But this installment, like the others, stands perfectly well on its own merits and would appeal to fans of paranormal mysteries, noir, and plucky P.I.s. It’s a fast-paced read with an unexpectedly happy ending, and should absolutely be added to your quarantine read pile.

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