Nothing But Good by Kess McKinley

nothing but good

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Special Agent Jefferson Haines puts the ‘order’ in law and order. Meal kits. Gray suits. Consistent reps at the gym. But all his routines are thrown into chaos when he’s called in to catch a serial killer whose M.O. is the stuff of urban legend: the Smiley Face Killer.

Dripping paint. Wicked slashes for eyes. The taunting curl of a smiling mouth. After years evading capture, the serial killer is back again. As Jefferson races to stop the next attack, the investigation leads to the one man he thought he’d never see again, Fred ‘Finny’ Ashley.

Finny has his own theories about the killer. And they’re pretty good. Maybe too good. Now, with his career on the line, Jefferson has to figure out if his one-time best friend is the culprit or the next victim.

Rating: B

Given its polished writing and confident authorial voice, I’d have been hard pressed to guess that Nothing But Good is Kess McKinley’s first published book.  It’s a very promising début; a strongly written, well-paced mystery/procedural with a touch of romance set in Boston that revolves around the search for a serial killer who has been operating – and eluding capture – for years.

Special Agent Jefferson Haines and his partner, Special Agent Caroline Pelley, are called in when the body of a young man is pulled out of the water in Boston Harbour.  In the normal way of things, the investigation into the homicide would be handled by the Boston Police Department, but this murder is marked as anything but normal by the presence of the signature painted on the wall behind the corpse; a crude black circle of paint several feet in diameter filled in with jagged yellow swaths of paint. Inside that, two thick black slashes for eyes and a single curled line for the mouth.  It’s a well-known calling-card and has been for the last ten years; the Smiley Face Killer is at work again.  Whoever this person is, they’ve become something of an urban legend, said to hunt down young men and lure them to their deaths in bodies of water.

Jefferson and Caroline begin their investigation by looking at the other murders now believed to be the work of the same killer and start to build a profile, realising that all the bodies have been discovered in and around the upper Charles River Basin and Boston Harbour and that the SFK must be very familiar with that part of the city.   After hours spent scrutinising security footage, Jefferson realises that the killer must be holding his victims somewhere before killing them – or after – and then transporting the bodies by boat, and if that is the case whoever it is must be a pretty experienced sailor.  For Jefferson, watching hours of video and pouring over maps is no substitute for actually walking the crime scenes to get a better understanding of where everything played out, so the next step is for him and Caroline to liaise with the various local government agencies including the DUP – Boston Department of Urban Planning – and the DPM, the Massachusetts Department of Parks Management – and arrange for ongoing cooperation with the investigation.

The first of these meetings is with the Commissioner of the DPM, but when Caroline and Jefferson arrive, she’s running late and instead her Chief of Staff comes to greet them – and Jefferson’s world tilts on its axis.  His former college roommate – and the man he now realises he’d been in love with – Finny (Fred) Ashley is standing in front of them, looking every bit as shocked as Jefferson feels.   He and Finny had been best friends throughout their college years until they had a massive row shortly before graduation and haven’t seen each other since.  Jefferson said some pretty nasty things at the time – and judging from Finny’s reaction, he’s still pissed.

The mystery in Nothing But Good is compelling, the author skilfully works in a number of possible suspects and the search for the killer will keep readers guessing right up until the reveal.  I particularly appreciated the way the procedural aspect is presented here; so often in print and on-screen stories of this type, the less glamorous aspect of the job (the boring grunt work!) is just ignored or glossed over, but that’s not the case here, and the author does a good job of incorporating those aspects of law enforcement work without getting bogged down in it, and combining them with the action and the romance.

The story is told entirely from Jefferson’s PoV, and he’s an engaging narrator.  He’s a highly competent, dedicated agent and is a bit buttoned up;  he hasn’t had many romantic partners  and isn’t a fan of one-nighters (it’s never explicitly stated, but as he talks about needing to have an emotional connection before feeling sexual attraction I’m guessing he’s demisexual) and his most important relationship is the one he has with Caroline.  They’ve worked together for a few years and even – coincidentally – live in the same building, so they spend quite a lot of time together outside work, and know each other pretty well.  I liked the way Jefferson’s character is established in the early part of the book – as reserved, a bit of a stickler for routine and utterly committed to his job – because it helps to make clear just how far his reunion with Finny unsettles him, a reaction that doesn’t go unnoticed by Caroline, who is the one to point out that just because Jefferson and Finny have history, it doesn’t mean Finny shouldn’t be on their list of suspects.

The tension between Jefferson and Finny is nicely done and the author skilfully drip-feeds the details as to what happened between them over a few chapters, but doesn’t draw things out too much.  It’s clear that whatever it was, Jefferson screwed up and knows it, and that it still affects Finny quite deeply, but while they’re both appealing characters and I liked them together, the romance isn’t as well developed as I’d have liked.  We’re told a bit about their former friendship and how important it was to both of them, but once they’ve resolved their differences in the present day, they pick up pretty much where they left off, which seemed a bit unlikely given they haven’t spoken a word to each other for eight years.  There’s also a sex scene towards the end of the book which felt like it was shoe-horned in for the sake of it; it didn’t really add anything to the story or relationship.

But despite those criticisms, I enjoyed Nothing But Good, and would definitely recommend it to anyone who, like me, is always on the look-out for good romantic suspense novels.  It’s fairly short, but it’s tightly-plotted, the prose is sharp, the relationships are well-written and the characters are likeable and well fleshed-out.  I’m looking forward to reading more from this talented author.