Fresh Meat: Flame Out by M.P. Cooley

Flame Out by M.P. Cooley is the 2nd small-town mystery featuring FBI-agent-turned-local-cop June Lyons set in Hopewell Falls, NY (available June 2, 2015).

Where and when are more than just integral parts to a news story – they’re also integral parts to an investigation. In this case, the ‘what’ is M.P. Cooley’s sophomore novel Flame Out, which picks up where Cooley’s first novel, Ice Shear, left off, and uses time and environment to create a mystery as crackling and buried as the factory fire that opens the book. The intelligent weaving of upstate New York life, small town secrets, generations of families, and unsolved disappearances makes this story one worth reading for anyone looking for a mystery that goes above and beyond the expected.

Hopewell Falls, New York is a town from the ages of factories, where rust and mechanics were enough to employ a thriving town of first-, second-, and third-generation European immigrants. June Lyons has grown up in Hopewell Falls under the wing of her father, now a retired cop with a long history of outstanding service. June, like her father, now serves on the Hopewall Falls police force. Her life has had enough ups and downs with the death of her husband and with her leave from the FBI; Hopewell Falls was supposed to be a place for June to recuperate.

Sleep-Tite was a factory that kept Hopewall Falls afloat for generations. Now, the ruined building has been set ablaze with a woman inside of it. Burned across most of her body, she manages to survive. June and her department investigate the scene and assume arson. The investigation leads to the discovery of something much more gristly – a body.

The body is decently preserved behind an old wall of flimsy sheetrock and brick. It matches the general demographics of a woman that had been missing for decades, a woman believed to be murdered by her domineering husband who had owned the factory for a few years. Luisa Lawler was an infamous part of Hopewell Falls and its history. Just as her case appears to be laid to rest, June and the rest of the department come to realize that the body isn’t Luisa.

It’s difficult to separate out all of the individual parts of Flame Out that make it a phenomenal read. With a great mystery, especially one that keeps you guessing without relying on an excessive amount of devices, everything has to work in tandem in order to be successful. Cooley shows us a human narrator in June Lyons, a woman who wants to honor her personal life while inevitably changing the course of it through her work. Small town policing means that everything is personal to some degree.

That small town setting takes off from June’s characterization and provides a platform for a mystery that spans families, generations, and professions. June interacts with powerful families, former husbands/wives/lovers, and the odd person here or there with vague ties to the case. Each character is inevitably tied to Hopewell Falls, as well as the rise (and subsequent fall) of industry in the area. Cooley shows how these characters relied on each other to stay afloat and make their own rules in a setting that relied so much on a limited industry. The connection that many of these characters have to Ukraine and immigrant history makes this all the more compelling.

“She was troubled, our Vera. She was born in safety here, but she was raised by people like me, fighting for every meal, every breath. Ukraine was hard place. Stalin starved us, shipping grain from our beautiful breadbasket over Black Sea, to pretend he was a big man, a world leader. I lived because Stalin’s force, his secret police, missed one sunflower, growing not in field but next to my home, hidden behind a post.”

I thought of the sunflowers that lined Natalya’s garden and realized they were for more than show.

By creating a setting and generational span in which each character relies on another for job security, family, and day-to-day life after immigration, Cooley shows how one missing person can snowball into a mystery that’s almost impossible to solve. The reader gets swept up in June’s attempts at pulling out each thread as she learns about each character. Those characters feed into Hopewell Falls, making it a character unto itself, while revealing just enough of the mystery each time to keep June (and the reader) going. This integration of time and place makes the mystery that much harder to solve, because character motivations are forever entangled and made sensible by decades of personal history. No matter the character present, Cooley makes them useful while keeping readers guessing, connecting them to each other through family ties and their individual histories.

Like his nephew Brian Medved, Dan limped, his foot dragging behind him, although if I had to guess I’d bet his injury came from a construction accident instead of battle. Dan wore heavy work boots, steel toed and ungraceful. He went around the side of the desk, gathering up a stack of rolled-up architectural plans, sliding them into a wire rack. His office was utilitarian, one wall covered in whiteboard and the other three posted with architectural plans.

“My wife is going to kill me when she hears I was talking to the police without her present.” He sat down. “She’s a lawyer and doesn’t think you should pay a parking ticket without counsel present, but I don’t always like her knowing the details of my deals. It makes her nervous when she’s sees how much money’s involved, like if it doesn’t work out she’ll have to go back to waitressing at Jake’s bar.”

Flame Out is more than just a well-written mystery. It’s an exploration of how the history of a place can seep into its people and its secrets. June Lyons is the kind of narrator that makes everything come alive because she, as much as the suspects, is a part of Hopewell Falls. Cooley’s sophomore novel is a satisfying mystery as well as a satisfying study of character, and the character of place, and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone that has questioned the seemingly dull history of their small towns.

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John Jacobson is a college student that likes to get little sleep and advocate for LGBTQ/queer social justice.  If he had spare time, it would always be spent reading or watching nostalgic 90’s cartoons.  He’s a coeditor at Spencer Hill Press and has been a part of the publishing community for over five years.  He also writes for Heroes and Heartbreakers.  You can find him there, on Twitter @DreamingReviews, and occasionally on his personal blog.

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