Fresh Meat: Bad Bones by Linda Ladd

Bad Bones by Linda Ladd is the sixth Missouri-based mystery featuring homicide detective Claire Morgan where a frozen and broken corpse is found in a state park (available September 29, 2014).

A nasty ice storm covers Missouri, and Canton County Homicide Detective Claire Morgan and her partner are stuck directing the slip-and-slide traffic when they get called in to investigate a questionable death. A man has been found at the base of a cliff in Ha Ha Tonka State Park. When they arrive, they find a frozen, battered corpse. Suicide is quickly ruled out because every bone in the victim’s body is broken.

Paulie Parker, the vicitim, a.k.a. “Parker the Punisher,” was an MMA cage fighter, but no fight has ever resulted in the injuries he’s sustained. As Claire digs deeper into Parker’s past, she finds ties to the Russian mafia, fighters willing and able to kill anything that moves, and a backwoods society that raises young boys, like Paulie, to fight or die.

Bad Bones is the sixth installment in Linda Ladd’s series about Claire Morgan. Unlike previous Claire Morgan novels, this one is told entirely in the third person. (Previous installments have Claire’s point of view in the first person.) While this may seem a small adjustment, it actually serves to make the stakes higher. With this small change, you never know if Claire will be taken out of commission as she hunts down the most brutal killer of her career: a man who was trained to break bones from childhood.

To allow the reader to fully appreciate the danger this killer poses, Ladd intersperses Claire’s narrative line with the story of a young boy called Punk – a kid who hides under his bed to avoid being forced to fight his siblings and the neighbor boys. Unfortunately for Punk, he’s not permitted to hide. His father and brothers are waiting for him.

Pa pushed Punk toward the boy waiting to bloody him up. Somebody hit the old cow bell with a steel hammer, and Punk desperately tried to remember what he was supposed to do. The other kid was already charging straight at him. He put up his gloves in front of his face and tried to dance around with his feet like his twin brother always did in his own fights, but he couldn’t do it without stumbling. He ducked down when the other kid took a big swing at him but he wasn’t fast enough to get out of the way. The blow hit him in the side of his neck and sent him staggering sideways, and all the dads and grandpas and uncles and other kids sitting around in folding chairs yelled and hooted and yelled out for Hardnose to hit him again.

As an introduction to the world Paulie Parker grew up in, it’s brutal. Ladd doesn’t shy away from hurting her characters. The societal environment is unforgiving and the physical environment – ice storms and harsh temperatures – make Claire’s job even more difficult. Just getting to the body requires climbing down a cliff face in icy conditions. The crime scene techs have to come at the body via boat because there’s no other way to bring in their equipment.

The bottom half of the body was still encased in the frozen water just off the bank. Buck had ordered the lights to be focused on the victim, but dusk had fallen fast and hard now, and it was difficult to see as the snow turned to sleet and began to come down harder and in swift, slanted arrows that felt and sounded like BB pellets.

Shivering like crazy, Claire made her way closer to Buck, where he stood supervising the extraction of the body. There was little she could tell about the victim’s face, except that his skin looked purple. As Buck had said, the murky ice distorted his face and made his features unrecognizable. The scene in its entirety looked a lot like textbook photographs she’d seen of wooly mammoths being dug out of Arctic ice. The victim seemed to have frozen to the spot where he had landed in a relatively upright sitting position, head down, chin frozen tightly against his chest. The ice casing followed the contours of his body and made an ice effigy of a human being that created a very surreal and awful tableau of death in those smoky lights and windblown sleet.

Pretty unpleasant, huh? Cold and shivery.

But, while the story is rough-and-tumble, Ladd lightens some of the mood with her language – particularly in Claire’s chapters. Colloquialisms salt and pepper the story. Claire uses terms like “honeybun” when referring to her fiancé, the overwhelmingly wealthy doctor Nick Black. The sheriff actually says “dadgummit.” And after crawling around, digging out frozen corpses, Claire daydreams about getting home: “Yes, indeedy, the idea of him [her fiancé Black] and a very warm hot tub at the end of the road, both just waiting for her to show up so the fun could begin, did register awfully high on her whoopee scale at the moment.”

Yep, Claire has an internal whoopee scale. And after the day she’s had, who can blame her?

Bad Bones is an engaging ride through a cold Missouri mystery. Ladd balances complicated layers of society, intense family relationships, and some extremely violent and disturbing circumstances very well. As the main investigator, Claire Morgan is competent and believable. The side characters are engaging, with intriguing backgrounds that’ll make you want to pick up the previous installments to find out all the gory details of their lives. And definitely grab some hot chocolate as you read – Bad Bones’ setting and story get rather chilling.

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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

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