Once You Go This Far by Kristen Lepionka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This complex and intriguing mystery is the fourth to feature Roxanne Weary, the Columbus, Ohio PI.
Rebecca Newsome, in her fifties or early sixties, is found dead, having fallen down a steep incline along a trail in the Highbanks Metro Park north of Columbus. Rebecca was in Columbus to visit her daughter Maggie, whose baby was due any day. Maggie hires Roxanne to investigate her mother’s death and points the finger at Keir Metcalf, a Toledo-area PI whose recent divorce from Rebecca had been unpleasant.
Roxanne’s investigation takes her on multiple trips to Toledo and its neighboring communities as well as to downtown Detroit and across the river to a casino in Windsor, Canada.
Each thread Roxanne follows opens new possibilities involving additional characters. There’s Joel, the head of the Keystone Christian Fellowship to which Maggie, her husband, and Keir belong. There’s Aiden, Joel’s 16-year-old stepson, who hides out in Rebecca’s Toledo house and goes on the lam when he learns she’s dead. There’s Nadine, Joel’s wife, who seems to have disappeared, although no one in the Fellowship will talk about her. There’s Rebecca’s first husband, Barry, head of security at the Windsor casino, who deserted her and their daughter Maggie when the daughter was an infant. And there’s Constance Archer-Nash, aka Constance CAN, who is running for Senate against incumbent Rob Portman and is drawing the ire of anti-abortionists. (The story is set before Portman announced he would not run for re-election. Constance CAN is presumably inspired by but not modeled after AOC.)
Lepionka writes well. I’ve previously enjoyed the first and second installments in the series (and skipped to number four only because I found it on the shelf when browsing for my next read). The characters are unique and well-drawn. The plot, as it unfolds, is mostly convincing, though there were places where I wasn’t entirely convinced. (I won’t tell you what they are.)
The Keystone Christian Fellowship plays a major role in the story, as Roxanne learns how their up-to-date, low-keyed come-on and public service programs pull in people but then gradually isolate them from their families and friends and enmesh them in a web of control. But is there anything criminal going on? What, if anything, did the cult have to do with Rebecca’s death? Roxanne struggles with putting the pieces together.
Lepionka’s handling of the religious organization and its members seems fair. Such organizations exist. Some of them become “cults.” And abuse of power and loss of moral compass occur in some cults (and in other religious organizations). Lepionka balances the portrayal of the Fellowship and its members with characters who are Christian but not of the Fellowship, including Rebecca, who had left the group. We do not, however, get much insight into the nature of their faith—or, for that matter, into the faith of the members of the Fellowship.
A problem with the book is that there are references and events that presume the history from the previous books. The biggest such involves the identity of Roxanne’s boyfriend, Tom. We only learn by inference that he’s a police officer who knew and worked with Roxanne’s recently-deceased father. Like other writers of series, I struggle to provide necessary background without repeating the same boiler-plate information.
This novel attempts to flesh out Roxanne’s life by incorporating “personal-life sub-plots.” There is conflict between Roxanne and a former female lover. There are conflicts between Roxanne and her brothers and mother. Unfortunately, the sub-plots don’t integrate with the main events in the novel and so seem tacked on. I’ve had the same feeling when reading novels by Michael Connelly and others.
Better, I think would be either of two alternatives. First, one can simply skip personal-life mini-dramas. Family and friends can be there without having to involve drama. Alternatively one can integrate personal conflicts closely and authentically into the story line. Walter Mosley and Dorothy Sayers do this quite well.
Despite these quibbles, the book and its predecessors are good reads and Roxanne Weary is a PI with a promising future.
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Once You Go This Far by Kristen Lepionka