Time of Death by Lucy Kerr is a debut novel and the 1st book in the new Stillwater General Mystery series (Available today!).
ER Nurse Francesca “Frankie” Stapleton moved to Chicago for its fast pace and the opportunity to make a difference. She stays in the big city for ten years before she’s called back home to the small town of Stillwater. Her pregnant sister, Charlotte “Charlie” Stapleton, has come down with pre-eclampsia, a life-threatening condition for both mother and baby. Frankie returns to her hometown—and all of her past regrets—to help.
However, on the way into Stillwater General Hospital, Frankie stumbles on to Clem Jensen, a handyman suffering all the classic signs of a heart attack. But the Stillwater ER is filled to the brim with teenagers injured in a high-school bus accident. Moving quickly, Frankie grabs supplies from a nearby ambulance and manages to get the attention of the staff. She saves Clem’s life … for a little while. Later that night he dies in his room.
But Clem’s death is no accident.
Time of Death by Lucy Kerr is a debut with all the elements of a good medical mystery. The modus operandi is sophisticated, there’s a sharp main character to spot it, and—for a change of pace—this medical crime happens in a small town that is loaded with intrigue and gossip all its own.
As an author, Kerr doesn’t seem to mind sticking it to her characters. The novel opens with Nurse Frankie Stapleton having a really bad couple of days. Frankie and her handsome surgeon fiancé break up. She has to return to her small hometown (something she really doesn’t want to do) to take care of her very ill, and resentful, younger sister. Then, the man Frankie barely managed to save dies anyway. AND, because she acted without proper authority, she’s slapped with a malpractice suit. It’s a mess. A lot of people would probably curl up and cry in a corner somewhere.
Not Frankie. Once her sister and premature baby niece are stable, Frankie begins digging into Clem Jensen’s death. What she discovers is not comforting: Clem didn’t die from a heart attack, but from respiratory failure, and someone other than Frankie visited Clem in the ICU—someone unauthorized—while Frankie was in Clem’s room.
Clem’s snores were audible from the hallway. I slipped inside, careful to move lightly. Patients rarely get an uninterrupted stretch of sleep, especially on the critical care floor, and I hated to be the one who woke him. Everything looked as it should: monitors registering his vitals, clearly labeled bags of IV fluid dangling from the stand, and the infusion pump working at the proper rate. Considering the condition Clem had been in when I found him, this was a best case scenario. So why did I still feel uneasy?
The answer didn’t appear, but my eyelids grew heavy as the day caught up to me. Sometime later, I woke to the sound of the door opening, light from the hallway slashing across the floor. Slow footsteps approached.
“Hey Marcus?” I whispered. The footsteps stopped. “Are you sure Clem was taking his meds?”
He didn’t respond. I stretched, rolled my shoulders to dislodge the tension knotted there. “I was thinking…”
The door closed with a decisive click. Marcus was gone, and I decide to follow his lead, ignoring the whisper of warning that hovered at the edge of my mind.
(That wasn’t Marcus.)
Complicating an already complicated situation is the person Frankie must turn to for help: Stillwater Deputy Noah MacLean. He’s her “first fiancé”—the one she left behind to pursue her life in Chicago. Their history adds another tangle to the snarl Frankie finds herself in.
“Shouldn’t you be reading this from a little notepad? Cops love their little notepads.”
“Maybe if this was an official investigation. Since it’s a favor for a friend, I decided to be a little less formal.” He paused, the leaned forward and plucked a maple leaf from my hair and held it out to me like a flower.
I took it from him, careful that our fingertips didn’t touch.
“Are we friends now, Frankie?”
I ran my thumb along the veins of the leaf. “I guess so? If you want to be.”
He didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, “I get it now, why you had to leave. I shouldn’t have tried to guilt you into staying.”
I swallowed hard. “Mo more wrong than me trying to guilt you into coming with me. It was a long time ago, Noah. We were kids. We didn’t know any better.”
“And now we’re friends,” he said, his eyes fixed on mine, steady and warm despite the shadows.
“Friends,” I agreed and told myself that was exactly as it should be.
“So let me ask you, as a friend … why are you looking into Jensen’s death?”
“Is this the friend asking? Or the deputy?”
Between reconnecting with her first love, navigating her estranged relationship with her family, and hunting down a murderer who is quite sophisticated in his methods, the pressure Frankie finds herself under is intense. She uses every tool in her arsenal to find the truth behind Clem’s death—befriending Clem’s daughter, who allows her to go through his paperwork; begging fellow nurses to share Clem’s medical chart; and convincing Noah to ask questions where she can’t. And sleep? What’s that?
Time of Death is a fast-paced novel with a lot of elements (friends, family, intriguing occupation) that make it a strong opening for a unique series. There are a lot of tense moments reminiscent of some harder crime novels, but there’s enough sense of an “outsider” digging into the mystery (like Miss Marple) that it feels like a contemporary Agatha Christie—poisons and mayhem! Definitely worth curling up with … as long as you’re not in an emergency room.
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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.
Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.