“Past Tense” By Lee Child. Delacorte Press, 2018, $28.99
“Below the Tree Line: A Pioneer Valley Mystery” By Susan Oleksiw. Midnight Ink, Woodbury, Minnesota, 2018. 312 pages. $15.99.
Two new suspense novels set in New England woods grab our attention before we’ve had a chance to blink. Lee Child and Susan Oleksiw, both skilled authors who’ve committed multiple murders on the page, give us plenty of entertainment in time for long winter nights.
If “Past Tense” means “beyond intense” then Lee Child’s new thriller is aptly named. His 23rd Jack Reacher suspense novel is a doozy.
Reacher, Child’s ever-vigilant protagonist, is bigger, meaner, smarter, less well fed and more sleep deprived than ever. He doesn’t workout yet he still has, as one foe warily observes, “arms like bags of rocks.” He’s taller than 6-feet, 5-inches with shoes on, his hair sticks out every which way and there are teeth marks embedded in his knuckles. He’s politely sarcastic and he’s agile but ready with a plan, if necessary. He’s one of America’s best-loved protagonists, even when his romancing fails to convince.
“Past Tense” commences with Reacher heading south for the winter, hitching from Maine to San Diego. He makes it as far as Laconia, New Hampshire, when he gets sidetracked by a decision to spend an extra day looking for the family homestead where his father, Stan, was born. This layover is unplanned but like all layovers written by Lee Child, big trouble erupts in no time - with Reacher smack in the middle.
In less than a day he has two sets of brutes on his tail. It begins while he’s sleeping in a B&B. Something awakens him at 3 a.m. It happens again the next night so he investigates and discovers an assault in progress. Naturally he beats the guy up but the guy has a rich father who sends up a squad of battering rams from Boston. The chief of police insists that Reacher take care of business and get out of town. She doesn’t want trouble but quickly intuits what the rest of us know - where there’s Reacher there’s trouble. A second herd of thugs comes after him when they hear he’s trespassing on private land. Naturally he has to set them straight by bending some limbs.
Reacher spends hours researching 80- and 70-year-old census and town records looking for clues as to his family’s life and work in Laconia. By the time Reacher leaves town, he’s both more and less informed than when he began his investigations.
During his inquiries, Reacher meets some real New England characters, among them an old ex-preacher with a scrawny ponytail who lives in the woods and drives a broken-down old Subaru. He is not the usual sort that joins up with Reacher to conquer evil. He’s steadfast in his commitment to helping, too old to even keep up with Reacher when on foot and outwardly undisturbed - or is it unimpressed - with Reacher’s mighty prowess. In other words, he’s a well-drafted Yankee.
A second mystery in “Past Tense” is much more evil, dire and dreadful. A 25-year-old Canadian couple en route to New York City with some valuable cargo gets waylaid in a remote region of outer Laconia. They wind up at a creepy motel full of dubious young men with sadistic tendencies. They are without transportation, encircled by woods and trapped in their room. What starts out as weird and uncomfortable quickly turns very very bad. The young couple, Patty and Shorty, with dispositions like their Yankee counterparts, are not prone to panic. Similar in psychology to Reacher, they wrestle their adrenaline into a slow-drip that gives them time to think. They rely on their hard-won knowhow, their love for each other and teamwork.
This 23rd Reacher novel is lots of fun, especially for those who’ve spent time imagining what lurks in the dark, dense woods. As always, Reacher is totally “the man,” an unrepentant killing machine with a very intact moral compass. He only kills the bad guys. And then he moves on.
Susan Oleksiw’s newest mystery, “Above the Tree Line: A Pioneer Valley Mystery,” brings readers deep into the forested lands of western Massachusetts. In these endangered woodlands, treasured and maintained by families for generations, poverty is relative. They sacrifice to retain land and lifestyle. Reliant on three and four lines of work for their livelihood, they understand that ingenuity ensures survival. And, like all dense and unfathomable woods, mysteries and secrets abound - along with three extremely puzzling murders.
“Below the Tree Line” kicks off Oleksiw’s third mystery series, set in the Pioneer Valley region of Massachusetts. Like her previous series, set in India, the series features a strong female protagonist. Felicity O’Brien has taken over management of her family’s large, multi-use tract of land. She farms, runs a CSA operation (community supported agriculture), operates a farm stand, tends Merino sheep for local textile artists, engages in active forest management and has begun to open her land up to plein air painters with keen connections to nature.
Felicity has developed quite a skillset, as well. She can repair a barn roof, overwinter vegetables for early spring harvests, spot a broken brake fluid line, maintain a long-term relationship and pursue leads in a series of murders that have something to do with her property.
In the first few pages Oleksiw establishes a strong, enduring overlay of suspense. Awakened by noises near the barn at the novel’s outset, Felicity grabs her shotgun and steps into the cold, dark night to confront the alarming source of the trouble.
Felicity’s life is a challenge on many fronts. For more than 15 years, she has had a loving relationship with Jeremy, who owns a nearby farm and operates a small construction business. His daughter, whom he has continued to parent despite a divorce, is finishing college and has taken an interest in taking the farm in a new direction. The daughter’s interests, while commendable, complicate Felicity’s and Jeremy’s long-postponed plans for their future.
One of the fine things about this series is how much emotion Oleksiw evokes. We worry for Felicity and we agonize over the future of her endangered woodlands that others are targeting for their own personal gain. As for the three murders, each comes as a surprise and each amps up the dread.
America’s bestselling writers, including Salem, Massachusetts’ Nathaniel Hawthorne, have long known New England’s woods to be rife with mystery and intrigue. Oleksiw and Child are the latest to take good advantage.
Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.