Beneath Devil’s Bridge by Loreth Anne White

beneath devil's bridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

True crime podcaster Trinity Scott is chasing breakout success, and her brand-new serial may get her there. Her subject is Clayton Jay Pelley. More than two decades ago, the respected family man and guidance counselor confessed to the brutal murder of teenage student Leena Rai. But why he killed her has always been a mystery.

In a series of exclusive interviews from prison, Clayton discloses to Trinity the truth about what happened that night beneath Devil’s Bridge. It’s not what anyone in the Pacific Northwest town of Twin Falls expects. Clayton says he didn’t do it. Was he lying then? Or now?

As her listeners increase and ratings skyrocket, Trinity is missing a key player in the story: Rachel Walczak, the retired detective who exposed Pelley’s twisted urges and put him behind bars. She’s not interested in playing Clayton’s game—until Trinity digs deeper and the podcast’s reverb widens. Then Rachel begins to question everything she thinks she knows about the past.

With each of Clayton’s teasing reveals, one thing is clear: he’s not the only one in Twin Falls with a secret.

Rating: A

Beneath Devil’s Bridge is a tense, tightly-plotted and superbly-executed mystery that is very loosely based on a real-life murder that happened in British Columbia some twenty-four years ago.   It’s a compelling, absorbing read that takes a look at the impact of a brutal crime on a small, close-knit community and asks some challenging questions about the lengths to which people will go to protect those they love or about what we are capable of doing to our fellow human beings.  It comprises some difficult subjects, so potential readers should be aware that the murder itself is quite gruesome (although we don’t witness it directly) and the story contains references to bullying, grooming, paedophilia, underage sex and rape.

If it takes a village to raise a child, does it also take a village to kill one?

Fourteen-year-old Leena Rai is an outsider.  Socially awkward and plain, all she really wants is what any teenage girl wants – to belong, to have friends, to be happy.  Sadly, she has none of those things.  She’s bullied relentlessly at school and on a cold November night she is brutally murdered when she’s on her way home from a “secret” bonfire festival in the mountains north of the small town of Twin Falls in the Pacific Northwest.

When her battered body is pulled out of the river a few days later, Detective Rachel Walczak is assigned to the case, along with Sergeant Luke O’Leary, a homicide detective from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – who will bring an outside perspective (and the considerable resources of the RCMP) to the investigation.  But as Rachel and Luke start interviewing Leena’s schoolmates, and others who were at the bonfire, they immediately get the sense that something is being carefully hidden from them; the stories they’re hearing are too pat, as though they’ve been co-ordinated… but by whom? And why?  This all becomes moot however, when someone – a teacher and guidance counsellor at Twin Falls Secondary school – confesses to the crime.  The case is closed,  there’s no trial and Clayton Jay Pelley goes to prison.

Twenty four years later, ambitious true-crime podcaster Trinity Scott decides to focus on the murder of Leena Rai in her latest series, and arrives in Twin Falls to speak to as many of the people involved in the original investigation as possible – including now-retired Rachel Walczak, whose health and family relationships deteriorated severely not long after the case concluded and who subsequently retired from the force.  Rachel has steadfastly refused each of Trinity’s requests, and when Trinity tells her that Pelley has agreed to speak to her, she’s incredulous.  Pelley has never spoken about the murder and the events of that night – and when, in the first of Trinity’s planned series of interviews, Pelley says he didn’t rape and kill Leena, and that her real killer is still out there, everything about the investigation is called into question.  Long-buried secrets threaten to tear apart a community already blighted by tragedy, and Rachel finds herself sucked back in, questioning her decisions, asking questions perhaps she should have asked back then, and remembering things she’d rather forget.

Written from the points of view of Rachel and Trinity and interspersed with excerpts from the interviews and podcasts, the author spins a taut thriller that moves back and forth between “then” – following the initial investigation – and “now”, the tension and momentum building inexorably in the manner of a snowball rolling down a mountain so that it quickly becomes dangerous and unstoppable.  Trinity’s interest in the Leena Rai murder opens a veritable Pandora’s Box, as layer upon layer of deception and betrayal is stripped away to reveal a truth more heartless and cold-blooded than anyone could have foreseen, and a small-town community bonded by trauma and deep, dark secrets.

At Devil’s Bridge is a powerful exploration of community, of what it means to be an outsider, of the unkindness and callousness we can so thoughtlessly offer our fellow man and of the way that only the truth – “Even if it hurts. Even takes you somewhere you don’t want to go” – can start to heal such deep-seated wounds.  The author also questions the value of things such as true-crime podcasts;  are they purely sensationalist entertainment, another form of trial by media?  Or do they have something genuine to offer – a fresh perspective, a new insight?

This is a dark, unsettling book on many levels, and it isn’t always easy to read – not only when it comes to the details about the murder, but also in its skilful examination of the worst aspects of human nature.  For all that, though, it’s absolutely riveting, the characters are well-drawn, the pacing is excellent with several good twists along the way (some I saw coming, others I didn’t), and the setting is expertly realised.

I don’t really have any negatives to offer; there’s one twist that felt just a little improbable, but I’m sure it’s no moreso than many of those found in other mysteries and it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the novel at all.

I don’t read many thrillers, but Loreth Anne White is one of my go-to authors, and I always make a point of looking out for whatever she’s coming up with next. In At Devil’s Bridge she once again delivers a thumping good read, a darkly atmospheric page-turner that had me glued to the pages, desperate to find out the truth, and running the gamut of emotions.  It’s a masterful piece of storytelling and I’m only too happy to recommend it.

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