Fresh Meat: Burnt River by Karin Salvalaggio

Burnt River by Karin Salvalaggio is the 2nd book in the Detective Macy Greeley series where a murdered war veteran uncovers secrets that were supposed to remain buried (available May 12, 2015).

Detective Mary Greeley heads to Wilmington Creek in Northern Montana, a place where a man letting his hair grow is front page news for the local paper. So when the deadly shooting of a veteran occurs, it gets much more than passing interest. John Dalton survived action in Afghanistan, but his skills are not enough to help him dodge the bullet which ends his life in a dust strewn alley outside a bar. The Dalton family are powerful and well connected, and more than a few of them are keeping secrets, festering away in the hot unforgiving sun. Friends of the dead man also have buried secrets, which start to rear their ugly heads, one by one, as things you try to hide always seem to do.

Karin Salvalaggio creates a tight, believable central figure in Detective Greeley, as the Daltons are not alone with their demons. Investigating the death of the man seems straightforward at first, but peoples’ reluctance to both embrace and tell the truth, for their own reasons, means that Detective Greeley has more going on. And it's more than just dealing with her own relationships and the complications they bring, at the same time she's trying to solve a case of clear cut murder. The writing is sharp and sparse with just the right amount of grit in the prose and dialogue to keep you interested in what is going on and curious about the outcome of the unfolding events and their subsequent effect on peoples’ attempts to keep their secrets buried and undisturbed.

Police Chief Aiden Marsh stood on the sidewalk outside the Wilmington Creek Bar and Grill with his hat in his hands. At five foot eleven and without an ounce of spare flesh, he had an air of efficiency about him. He was so focused on his conversation with an older gentleman, he failed to notice Detective Macy Greeley’s state-issue SUV gliding into the parking space right behind him. She sat in the driver’s seat with the windows open, sipping her coffee. The two men kept their voices low, but once Macy cut the engine she could hear every word.

“Jeremy, I just want you to know how sorry I am.”

The man Macy guessed to be Jeremy Dalton leaned his considerable bulk against the doorframe and smoothed his closely clipped gray beard with a meaty paw. Eyes in shadow, he had a ball cap down pulled tight on his head. His long gray hair fell past his shoulders.

“Aiden, with all due respect, I don’t want your sympathy. I want answers.”

“And I promise I’m going to get those answers for you.”

Swallowing hard, the older man fought for control.

“I just can’t believe my boy is gone.”

“Detective Mary Greeley should be here soon. Once she’s had a chance to look things over I’ll bring her in to talk to you.”

“It doesn’t seem right that they’re sending a woman.”

It is not a great surprise that most people are not falling over themselves to greet the detective who has come simply to do her job, to find out what happened to the fallen soldier, and who pulled the trigger. The fact that the head of the Clan Dalton has a problem with Detective Greeley because she is a woman tells us as much about him as the world he occupies and sees slipping from his grip. He has attempted to keep a hold by reaching out to his many contacts, but a woman arriving tells him his influence may not be all he thought it was.

The narrative proceeds at a solid pace and you always feel like you are in the vastness of Montana. Salvalaggio does a good job in intertwining the huge sense of space with the essence of tight clammy murder and unfolding events which close in on the participants, as well as the reader. If you are not sweaty enough with the unfortunate man’s murder and the role the players occupy in his life, then Salvalaggio adds the heat of wildfire into the mix. The tension of people having to deal with that spits venom into the story and brings with it more unforseen possibilities. The water level in Darby Lake is low, so low that the lakes decreasing water level worries people, as hidden by the water are things they will do anything to keep covered and away from prying eyes and unwanted questions. When things are buried, they are supposed to stay buried, but Burnt River shows just how difficult it is to control both human  and mother nature.  This the second outing into the grimy world of crime for Detective Greeley, Bone Dust White being the debut for both Karin Salvalaggio and her hero. It was an assured debut, but the writing here is crisper, tighter, and the characters have more room to breathe than in the first book.

Howard’s stubby finger followed the thin thread of a tertiary road to where it forked and then headed south.

“It was parked here.”

“Was it hidden?”

“It was parked off the road. That’s all I know so far.”

“And how far is that from the property?”

Ray spoke this time.

“It’s a seven-mile hike in, but it’s over fairly rough terrain.”

He sighed like he meant it.

“We’ll miss you today, but you made the right call. It’s going to be pretty hard going.”

Macy followed a trail that wove through the landscape toward the house on the ridge. It crossed a stream before heading uphill.

“What’s this cross marked here?”

Howard talked through a mouthful of scrambled eggs.

“That’s where the dogs lost Lana’s scent.”

A waitress handed Macy a menu, but she shook her head. She’d lost her appetitite.

I haven’t lost my appetite for Karin Salvalaggio’s stories or her Detective Greeley. It has just been whetted. I look forward to her next one. The only mystery which remains, so far is how I managed to write this without spelling her name wrong, once.

See more coverage of new releases in our Fresh Meat series.

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Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.

Read all Dirk Robertson’s posts for Criminal Element.

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