Dark River Rising by Roger Johns is a tense and expertly plotted debut mystery set against the bayous of Louisiana.
“Begin as you mean to go on” is the frequent advice given to many writers, advice that Roger Johns seems to have taken to heart with the opening of his debut mystery novel, Dark River Rising. Johns makes it clear right away that this book is not going to look away from horrible things, beginning with an especially gory crime scene that almost causes our seasoned detective, Wallace Hartman, to lose the contents of her stomach.
There was a cruelly sutured incision just below his rib cage and his abdomen heaved with a sinuous reptilian rhythm. Wallace’s mind recoiled from what her eyes insisted was true—that a snake was slithering among his innards searching for a way out. The corpse looked like it was belly dancing its way into the hereafter.
The victim is not a good guy by any measure; he’s the head of a drug-running scheme in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and well-known to the vice division of the city’s police. Wallace’s job is to find out why someone would want the man dead and, if it’s a rival, to stop a gang war. It soon becomes more complicated, as the method used in the torture and murder—especially the snake—catch the attention of Federal Agent Mason Cunningham, who has been using mathematical algorithms to predict an increase in crime from drug dealing.
There are many things that this debut novel gets right. A fascinating lead detective in Wallace, an intriguing hardboiled mystery, a nice cast of supporting characters, and a terrific, tense climax.
There’s also a beautiful sense of place, not only in Baton Rouge but also in other areas of Louisiana. Johns’s biography says he was born and raised in the state, and it shows in his handling of the setting, from the landscape to how the local characters think and react.
The mechanics of the mystery are great. There are numerous suspects, from the grieving father of a daughter who died of an overdose to others in the dealer’s circle to the cartel he works with to the mysterious person he was meeting at the warehouse where he was tortured and killed. At one point, Wallace must trace the origin of specially-made plastic bags found at the crime scene—something I’d never run across in fiction before—which led to a laboratory and revealed information that broke open the case.
I also liked how smartly Mason is written, especially his deduction about the crime scene, which lends to even more information. Mason is a cross between an office nerd and a federal agent, and he’s drawn refreshingly free of the sometimes macho posturing that seems to go hand in hand with a particular type of law enforcement officer in fiction. Their relationship is low-key and tentative but works as they begin to trust the other.
I did run across a few issues, however.
Wallace begins the book in a depressed state, meaning that there’s little that she truly craves. This makes it hard to bond with her, at least initially. The stakes in the beginning for her are low. Perhaps she might lose her job, perhaps not, but she’s not sure she cares at this point.
It’s far easier to write characters who want something, and that is clear from the way the cast around her comes to life before Wallace herself does. For instance, one of the suspects involved with Overman receives a point of view. What he wants is vividly drawn, as are his fears of being caught before he can accomplish that goal. It wasn’t until the climax—which contains a gripping final confrontation with the murderer where the lives of those she cares about are at stake—that I decided I’d like to spend more time with Wallace.
The story also falls down a bit with the main villain. I prefer a mystery that keeps me guessing yet provides enough clues to allow me to try to decipher who the killer might be myself. Instead, the killer’s identity is revealed about halfway through the book, and he’s given a point of view sooner than that. I know that giving a villain a point of view is part and parcel of some books in the mystery genre, and I’m sure the intent was to add suspense so the reader might start wondering when the villain might betray our heroes, but I felt a bit deflated reading it, as I wanted to find out for myself.
But, beyond that, the connection between why the villain committed murder and how he put his plan together are a bit weak—yes, I know his background fits the crime, but his plan is overly complicated and more than fussy. I did love that he’s good at sorting details through a logical filter but not so good at reading people, which causes him to misjudge them over and over because he’s overconfident in his abilities.
Overall, I hope this is the beginning of a new series starring Det. Wallace Hartman, as I’d like to spend more time in her world. (And the romance loving part of me hopes Mason will continue to be a supporting character in her story.)
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Corrina Lawson is a writer, mom, geek and superhero, though not always all four on the same day. She is a senior editor of the GeekMom blog at Wired and the author of a superhero romance series and an alternate history series featuring Romans and Vikings in ancient North America. She has been a comic book geek all her life and often dreamed of growing up to be Lois Lane.