I’m a big fan of mystery novels, so was quite pleased to receive an advance reading copy of Dying for Revenge, the first in a planned series of “whodunnits” by Barbara Golder. It’s an excellent, well-paced story and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The deeper I got into it, the more annoyed I became by outside interruptions; I really did not want to put it down.
Golder’s protagonist, Dr. Jane Wallace, is unique in that she’s not a sheriff or a police detective, but rather a regional Medical Examiner. She also holds a law degree. This gives a really fascinating perspective on the story’s murder investigations. Dr. Wallace has a number of tools at her disposal, has an excellent understanding of the law, and of course works with law enforcement, but she does not have direct access to all the tools that the state police or a sheriff’s department might have. When the bodies begin dropping, Dr. Wallace must use a variety of forensic techniques (medical and otherwise) to identify connections between cases — and then must convince skeptical local law enforcement authorities that particular deaths are indeed the work of a single killer.
I had some good early suspicions as to who the killer was, and the story includes enough clues for the attentive reader to form a good theory. The story also provides good plausible alternative theories. We — along with Dr. Wallace — have to follow all the clues before we can figure out which theory is correct. There are plenty of twists along the way. And remember, because Dr. Wallace is “only” a medical examiner, she can’t arrest a suspect or bring someone in for questioning the way a police officer could. When law enforcement doesn’t agree with her, and doesn’t want to cooperate, she has to pursue the suspect a little differently. The way she accomplishes this is really fun to read.
I’d add that the killer isn’t the only bad guy in the story. The way Dr. Wallace goes after some of these secondary villains — again, sometimes without the direct assistance of law enforcement — is quite satisfying.
However, Dying for Revenge is much more than just a mystery novel. It’s an inspirational story, with a complex protagonist who’s experienced a great deal of personal suffering. The particulars of these sufferings and losses are revealed gradually and naturally over the course of the story; Golder strikes a good balance of piquing the reader’s curiosity about Dr. Wallace’s past, while also satisfying the reader’s curiosity bit by bit. We come to really know and understand her. Even when she lashes out and does something selfish, or says something that we sense she’ll regret later and have to take back, I found myself cheering her on and saying “Darned right!” — because I understood her, and why her reactions were exactly the right ones for her character. As the story unfolds, and the protagonist begins to change and grow, I found myself cheering on those changes as well. The character development seems natural, and fits perfectly with what Dr. Wallace experiences over the course of the novel’s events.
A good novel also takes you to a new place, immerses you in it, and gives you the sense that you’ve truly lived there for a while. Dying for Revenge takes place in and around the resort town of Telluride, Colorado; I’ve never actually visited it, but by the end of the story really felt like I knew my way around. The next time I’m in Colorado, I want to make sure I see it in person.
The way the story itself is told is a bit unusual. We see the action through the eyes of several different viewpoint characters, most of whom narrate events in a third person voice. Dr. Wallace’s character, however, narrates events in a first person voice. I mention this as something for readers to be aware of, because it is so unconventional — and could be confusing if you’re not ready for it. I personally would have preferred that the story’s narration and viewpoint been kept more consistent (i.e. all third person or all / virtually all first person). YMMV, however. Other readers may find the viewpoint mix gives the best of both worlds: the first person narration allows them to identify more deeply with Dr. Wallace, while the third person narration allows them to witness actions Dr. Wallace is not present for.
Again, I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and getting to know Dr. Jane Wallace. My only disappointment is that the next nine installments in the series aren’t available right now.