The Dark Bones by Loreth Anne White

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She’s come back to solve the mystery of her father’s death and confront her own dark past.

When Detective Rebecca North left her rural hometown, she vowed never to return. Her father’s apparent suicide has changed that. The official report is that retired cop Noah North shot himself, knocked over a lantern, and set his isolated cabin ablaze. But Rebecca cannot believe he killed himself.

To prove it, she needs the help of Ash Haugen, the man she left behind. But Rebecca and Ash share more than broken hearts. Something darker lies between them, and the investigation is stirring it back to life. Clues lead them to the home of Olivia West and her deeply troubled twelve-year-old daughter, Tori. The child knows more about the murder than anyone can imagine, but she’s too terrified to say a word.

And as a cold-blooded killer resurfaces from the past, Rebecca and Ash begin to fear that their own secrets may be even harder to survive.

Rating: B+

When I picked up Loreth Anne White’s The Dark Bones for review, I wasn’t aware that it was linked to one of her earlier books, A Dark Lure, in which a young woman who was abducted and repeatedly assaulted is making a new life for herself in rural Canada only to have to face the prospect that her abductor may still be at large.  But never fear; it’s perfectly possible to read The Dark Bones as a standalone as the author brings new readers quickly up to speed, and the plots in both books are self-contained, so there’s no real overlap.

When Rebecca North left her small Canadian home town, she moved to Ottawa, where she has built herself a successful career in the white-collar crimes unit with the RCMP.  She hasn’t been home in years and doesn’t have plans to do so, until her father, a retired police officer – calls her out of the blue to tell her that he knows she was lying about an event that happened twenty years earlier, and that he needs to talk to her urgently.  He’s clearly drunk – he’s rarely been sober since the death of his wife – and Rebecca’s about to go into court, so she puts him off, promising she’ll  call him soon… but she can’t put his words out of her mind.  Her father is referring to the day she’d found the man she loved stumbling along a country road, bruised and bloody, a long gash down one side of his face he’d attributed to a riding accident – but why is he asking about it now?

The next day, Noah North is found dead in his home, all the evidence pointing to his having set fire to his remote cabin and then shot himself.  The police are convinced it’s suicide, and the coroner’s report seems to bear that out, but Rebecca isn’t satisfied.  Her father may have been overly fond of drink, but she doesn’t believe he was suicidal, especially given what he’d said the last time they’d spoken; that he’d found new evidence in an old case he’d worked – and that he thought he was being watched.  She decides to do a bit of investigating of her own, and in the process discovers that her father was looking into the disappearance, twenty years earlier, of an old schoolmate of hers.  Evidence given at the time said that Whitney Gagnon and her boyfriend were seen getting onto the bus heading out of town – but it seems that evidence was false, and Noah was convinced that the young couple were killed before they could leave.  If that’s true – who murdered them and why?  And could someone have killed Noah because he was getting too close to the truth?

This cold case stirs up a myriad of long-buried feelings for Rebecca, not least of which is guilt over the fact she didn’t visit her father often because she couldn’t bear to run into her former boyfriend Ash Haugen, the man she loved, and the man who broke her heart twenty years earlier.  Now she’s back, and meeting Ash is unavoidable – but more than that, it seems that every investigative road leads to him. He was the last person to have seen Noah North alive – and some witnesses suggest they were arguing – and she can’t ignore Noah’s words during that final call “he lied – you both lied”. Because while Rebecca’s lie backed up Ash’s about the riding accident, he never told her the truth about the injury to his face – which was sustained the very same day Whitney and her boyfriend were seen getting ready to leave town.

I was completely engrossed by the storyline of The Dark Bones and by the way the author so skilfully juxtaposes past and present events, giving us glimpses – in flashback – of the events of twenty years before, and linking them to the current investigation into Noah North’s death.  Her descriptions of the landscape of this area of rural Canada are incredibly vivid, enabling the reader to easily picture the locations she describes, and her portrait of small town life – where everyone knows everyone else and one only has to sneeze to have three people on the doorstep proffering hot soup and Lemsip within the hour – is simultaneously charming, menacing and claustrophobic.  I liked Rebecca and Ash, although I never felt I got to know them deeply; Rebecca fled when Ash broke her heart but never really got over him, while Ash was forced to give up on his dreams because of a single mistake that changed the course of his life.  The strong undercurrent of deep longing and hurt running between them is palpable from the moment they see each other again; and while I’m often sceptical of stories in which romantic feelings endure for years even when the couple in question doesn’t see each other throughout their separation, the strength of the connection between Rebecca and Ash practically leaps off the page and helped me to get past my usual side-eye of the trope.   In fact my main criticism of the book stems from the fact that I’d have liked a little more exploration of their relationship in the now, especially in the light of what we learn about Ash’s difficult past.

The pacing in the first part of the novel is perhaps a little slow, but I didn’t find that to be a problem at all; in fact, I really appreciated the time spent on setting up the situations and introducing the secondary cast (some of whom were central to A Dark Lure, which I intend to pick up as soon as I can).  The Dark Bones is a wonderfully atmospheric, multi-layered and well-constructed mystery from a real master of her craft; it will draw you in and keep you intrigued from first page to last.

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