Remains – J. Warren (Lethe Press)

Buy from Lethe Press

In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a grisly cover. It is, nevertheless, effective. I received this ARC a couple of months ago, and a morbid fascination with that picture–the same one that leads me to collect celebrity autopsy photos, which is way more than you need to know about me–kept it atop the TBR pile. Even better, the cover is not the best thing about this novel. Remains is a highly intriguing mystery as well as a fascinating look at one family’s dysfunction.

Mike Kendall is summoned back home for Thanksiving by his father, ostensibly because his mother would like to see him. He acquiesces even though Placerville is the destination of media throughout the state due to the discovery of a boy’s remains. Worse, Mike knows the bones are that of long-missing Randy MacPherson, a friend of his. As he waits for confirmation along with the rest of the town, he becomes involved with a former bully. Together, they try to discover the truth about Randy’s death.

Although the book is from Mike’s point of view and we never leave his head, the story doesn’t feels closed off. Instead, the pieces we see of his relationship with his parents and sister are detailed and personal. And, as Carl Rogers said, what is most personal is most universal. We have all had those moments with loved ones–you know, the ones where for a fraction of a second, we don’t love them anymore–but then the bond snaps back. With Mike, however, that bond is stretched tighter and tighter, and you know it will break. It’s just a question of when.

That’s only one of the means Warren has at his disposal to generate tension, and he does so with great efficiency. Not much is wasted here. The scenes are well-trimmed and lean, devoid of much scene setting so you can get to the action or the emotion quickly. The few sentences he uses to conjure up small town California are sufficient. Warren’s prose is what I like to call “iceberg” writing because most of its meaning is below the surface.

For example, Mike is in the garage under the car changing the oil, and his father comes in to ask Mike to get his sister to come to church with them. The dialogue is absolutely non-threatening, but in the middle of it, Warren drops the following:

…and his boots moved a little; the car shifted some. I thought about how in-tune you can get with a machine when you’re underneath and could be crushed at any moment. The oil was already sputtering, coming in two long, thin rivers. It wouldn’t be long now.

Suddenly, the rest of the passage becomes ominous.

Speaking of ominous, the actual solution to the mystery of what happened to Randy is as chilling and unique as it is off-putting. Those clues are planted early and often, and as soon as one of the characters makes the connection, it’s a head-smacking why-didn’t-I-see-that moment well worth your time.

And if the cover puts you off, understand that’s as violent as the book gets. We get no obscenely detailed information about the murder or the body. You may, however, want to slipcover the book before taking it to the gym. Or not. It might keep the treadmill next to you clear.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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