Long Bright River by Liz Moore is an unflinching look at the opioid crisis through a dark lens. None of the characters conform to the usual stereotypes. Cops aren’t always heroes (or villains); addicts aren’t always dangerous or hopeless. Everyone has secrets and people are seldom what they appear to be at first glance. In that way, it’s one of the most realistic novels I’ve ever read, and one of the most moving.
Michaela (but everyone calls her Mickey) and Kacey are sisters who grew up in the kind of family that does not put the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional’. Their young mother dies of a heroin overdose and their father disappears shortly after in the throes of his own addiction. They are raised by their maternal grandmother Gee, who provides them with the bare minimum of food, shelter and clothing but even less love and emotional support.
The two sisters, even while living in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, take different paths in adulthood. Mickey becomes a cop; Kacey becomes a junkie. Their paths cross occasionally, mostly when Mickey runs across Kacey working as a prostitute to support her drug habit. They seldom speak but the sporadic and distant contact serves as a cold comfort to Mickey, who still feels the responsibility of being the big sister and the one who turned out “okay”.
Just as it becomes apparent that a serial killer is targeting women, Mickey realizes she hasn’t seen Kacey lately on her usual street corner. She tries to find out what’s happened to her, even as she flinches every time another unidentified young woman’s body is found. Along the way a fuller picture of the sisters’ background is parceled out in flashback chapters, complicating what first appeared to be a tragic but common story.
Just like real life, there is no unambiguously happy ending here. Mysteries are solved, story lines are wrapped up, but all of the resolutions seem tentative, capable of being undone with a single slip. All the characters can do — all any of us can do — is just the best we can, one day at a time.
Who wants to kill Adriana Ford? And how many will die before the villain is found?
The first question to be answered in any Golden Age mystery featuring Miss Silver is simple: How will the retired governess-cum-detective acquire her client? Up to now in the series she has been hired by total strangers on trains, via word-of-mouth from satisfied clients, been called in by the police, and more or less stumbled into situations. In The Silent Pool (first published 1953), it’s much more straightforward — the client calls Miss Silver for an appointment. How quaint! But that’s where the humdrum aspects end.
For one thing, the retired stage actress visits Miss Silver in disguise (seen right through by our sharp-eyed sleuth, of course). Adriana Ford thinks someone in her ragtag extended family may be trying to kill her for her money — there’s been a fall on the stairs, a possibly poisoned soup, and a suspicious medicine tablet. After spilling all this to Miss Silver, the actress decides she’s being overly dramatic and declines Miss Silver’s help. But after the first body shows up, she puts in a call to our Maudie to come sort things out.
Throughout this series (we’re on Book 25 here) I’d gotten used to Miss Silver not showing up until perhaps the middle of a book or even later, so it was a surprise to see her right there in the first sentence this time. That fact, combined with a rather lengthy bit of exposition in the first chapter that brings readers up to speed on Miss Silver’s backstory, makes me think this book was seen as a chance to hook some new readers into the Tribe of Maudie. If you’re one of those people who don’t feel the need to start a series at the beginning, this could be a good one to begin with. But surely you wouldn’t do that, would you?
Anyway, the story is a good one. There’s a satisfying surfeit of suspects (though some clearly preposterous red herrings) and some pleasant characters to root for although not, interestingly enough, the client. In other books Miss Silver forms a bit of an attachment to her client that goes beyond a business relationship, but that’s not the case here. The rest of the cast confirms my theory that Wentworth had much more fun writing terrible people than she did nice ones. Her villains are always just so delightfully villainous.
I’m feeling a little melancholy as we approach the end of the series (just seven more left), but I’m pleased that each outing remains remarkably strong even this far along in the series.