Julia Vargas is a cop with a mission. When she’s not chasing down bad guys, Julia dedicates her time to investigating the Hangman serial killer… the same unsolved case that her father, Jim Vargas, was working on when he supposedly shot and killed himself three decades before. While rumors continue to swirl around her father’s death, Julia attempts to hunt down the truth.
The case once again hits dangerously close, however, when a woman’s bones are discovered in a historic downtown home, together with a photograph of Jim and Julia as a young girl. As horrifying as this discovery is, it may just be the break Julia has waited for. Working alongside Tobias Novak, a homicide detective with whom she shares a complicated—and steamy—history, she’s forced to confront her own past even as the Hangman looms in the shadows. But as the mysterious killer circles closer, Julia can feel her own noose begin to tighten…
The Hangman is the third title in Mary Burton’s Forgotten Files series of romantic suspense novels, in which the protagonists find themselves investigating ‘cold cases’, unsolved crimes dating back many years, which hold a particular significance for them. The principals in each story are different, so although some characters from the previous books appear in secondary roles, there’s no need to have read them to enjoy this one, which works perfectly well as a standalone. I have yet to read the first book, The Shark, but I thoroughly enjoyed book two, The Dollmaker, and was very impressed with the author’s ability to weave together a number of seemingly unrelated plot-threads and then to bring them together into a cleverly devised, complex whole.
We met Agent Julia Vargas of the Virginia State Police briefly in that book, and it was immediately clear that she’s one tough cookie. Her dad, Jim Vargas, was also a cop, and was a somewhat controversial figure; his undercover work brought down a number of dangerous criminals over the years, but the need to constantly be someone else took its toll on his personal life, and he committed suicide twenty-five years earlier, when Julia was just a child. Julia followed in his footsteps, becoming a cop, working undercover to bust criminal gangs and drug rings, but her most recent assignment went pear-shaped towards the end, and she suffered a vicious assault at the hands of the leader of the drug cartel she had infiltrated. Following a lengthy convalescence, Julia now works homicide alongside her partner, Dakota Sharp (hero of The Dollmaker), and has decided, during her vacation, to re-open her father’s last, unsolved case, that of the Hangman, who murdered two women back in the early 1990s, the moniker relating to the way the murders were committed and the bodies left hanging as though on display for all to see. In fact, there were those who actually suspected Jim Vargas of being the Hangman because the victims were known to him – and Julia wants to see if she can find anything in the old files that will help her to completely clear her father’s name. Or prove his guilt. She just wants the truth.
Detective Tobias Novak of the Richmond police isn’t overly happy about being dragged from the warmth of his bed –and the woman in it – to attend the scene of a fire in an old, downtown home. The body of a young woman has been found in the basement; the degree of decomposition indicates that it has been there for quite some time and the marks and injuries on what is left of the corpse indicate that this was death by homicide. Looking through the victim’s personal effects at the scene Novak is shocked to discover a photograph of Jim Vargas and his daughter (aged seven, he discovers later) in the woman’s purse. He puts in a call to Julia Vargas – the woman with whom he’d been in that warm bed – to ask her to come to the crime scene, and when she arrives, shows her the photo. Julia has absolutely no knowledge of how it could have got there, and doesn’t know the dead woman, but the discovery of her body, bearing all the hallmarks of The Hangman’s unique style, could be just the thing to kick-start her own investigations into the other unsolved killings and her father’s suicide.
Julia enlists the help of Shield Security, the high-tech security firm who had assisted Dakota Sharp in his investigations into the Dollmaker killings and part of whose remit is to assist law enforcement officers dig into cold cases using technology not previously available to uncover new evidence and unearth new leads. But when another young woman is murdered – seemingly by the Hangman – the stakes are raised. Is this the work of a copycat, or has the Hangman come out of retirement? And upping the ante still more is the fact that Julia knew the victim from her last undercover operation. The Hangman is sending Julia a message loud and clear – and she and Novak know it’s only a matter of time before the killer tries to make good on his threat.
The mystery is cleverly plotted and skilfully delivered as Julia gradually pieces together a picture of the father she had never really known while at the same time discovering the truth of his connections to the decades-ago victims of the Hangman’s crimes. Like her dad, Julia is very self-sufficient and careful not to let anyone get too close, keeping her emotions under wraps and details about herself and her life close to her chest. Her relationship with Novak began only recently when they hooked up after an event, and she’s keen to keep things between them strictly no-strings while it’s clear that he wants more. I enjoyed watching their relationship progress, with Novak’s calm steadiness acting as the perfect foil to Julia’s more impulsive temperament, and eventually providing her with the safe place she needs to finally be able to drop her guard and let him in.
Novak and Julia are together throughout pretty much the entire book, and although the romance is fairly low-key, there’s an ever-present sense of attraction and awareness between them throughout. The ending is nicely done and we leave the pair with an HFN that I fully expect to have turned into a longer term HEA by the time of the next book, which I’m hoping will feature Shield Security’s Garrett Andrews.
The Hangman is a well-paced mystery that kept me eagerly turning the pages into the early hours to see what would happen next. Ms. Burton’s meticulous plotting provides plenty of twists and turns, and her central characters are engaging and nicely-matched. Highly recommended for fans of the author’s and for anyone who likes a complex, solidly written mystery with a dash of romance.