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Book Review: Red Tide by Peg Brantley

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Red Tide is a great mystery–a whodunnit and a what done it–wrapped up in a page turning thriller. It’s rare when a debut book in a much scrutinized genre is written this well. The story and premise is original, the plot excellently executed, the dialog drives the piece along at a relentless pace (I finished the book at 2:36 a.m. and if I hadn’t been so satisfied, I would have been mad at myself since 5 a.m. was just around the corner and not to be avoided). The characters seem plucked from real life, and their traits, foibles and daily life are things that aren’t just topical but very much at the forefront of current events. And there are many characters, but the reader won’t have a hard time keeping them all straight, they are all individuals, memorable and necessary. Brantley is to be applauded for this if nothing else; she kept all those different balls in the air until the grand finale. Well done!

Brantley draws the Colorado scenery in such a masterful way that you’ll be tempted to stop and shop for skis and check Expedia for hotels, but never fear, the book won’t allow you to put it down. Plot and story line; A+, character development a strong A, pace another A+, sense of place A+ and extra credit for both a plot device (the Red Tide of the title) and issues that are topical. You can’t get much better than that your first time out of the gate, but I’d bet money that Brantley manages to get even better.

The story opens when FBI Agent Nick Grant accepts a call from a serial killer he helped put away more than a decade ago. Leopold Bonzer admitted killing 14 people, but only gave up the location of one grave. He is holding the knowledge of the location of 13 victims as a bargaining chip, but for what is the question. He seemingly is happy where he is at: Colorado’s Super Max prison, the Alcatraz of the Rockies.

But Bonzer is ready to trade now and Grant, who has been haunted for a decade by not being able to give closure to 13 families, is ready to listen. Bonzer is suddenly wanting to relocate out of the cold cement and steel facility. But not today, he wants it all in writing before he’ll give it up. But when Grant heads back to make the deal, the prison is in lock down, even cell phones are being jammed, attack dogs are loose and Grant has a fear of dogs. Grant also has a prescription drug problem.

There has been an escape attempt, and during the confusion Bonzer has mysteriously died. Maybe from natural causes, but it seem too coincidental. Grant looks through Bonzer’s stark cell for some kind of clue. He discovers a photograph hidden behind the stainless steel mirror. But there is no description of where the photo was taken. It is just a meadow surrounded by mountains and forest. Grant feels certain that it is the burial ground but with no idea of the locale, the case seems to be forever at a dead end.

During this same time, in Aspen Falls, Colorado, Jamie Taylor has been called out, along with her dogs, to locate the body of a missing woman. Jamie’s day job is as a loan officer at a bank where she makes enough to support herself and barely keep up with the upkeep on her family’s mountain home.

She also is relied upon to help her sister, Jackie “Jax” Susman, who is the local medical examiner, financially. Jax is married to a loser and abuser husband with a gambling, drinking and womanizing problem and Jackie makes excuses for him as he digs them deeper into debt.

What Jamie finds is the missing woman, but she also happens upon many more graves. The FBI is called in and the photo Grant is now in possession of matches up with the presumed burial ground of Bonzer. Problem is, there are decade old bodies, but there are also bodies of victims dead a year or two at most. It’s no great stretch of the imagination to deduce that there is a new serial killer at work, and he is using Bonzer’s mountain meadow as a place to dispose of his victims.

Brantley brings in the supporting cast: Jax, and Jamie’s girlfriends, Ciara, a model, and Ellen, who falls for a young junior FBI agent. Then there is Jamie and Jax’s father, who has not been around for 10 years. Jamie’s vocation may be a bank loan officer, but her passion is her dogs, superiorly trained tracking dogs and cadaver dogs.

Jamie is driven to help find murder victims because her mother was one. Her father was with a mysterious private international security agency when his wife and their mother was kidnapped and murdered in a gruesome way. Bryce Taylor has been on the murderer’s trail ever since, sometimes crossing the boundaries of the law in his search.

The romantic tension between Grant and Jamie is instantaneous, but they also rub each other the wrong way when Grant mistakenly takes Jamie as a hobbyist with her dogs. But then Grant has a deep fear of dogs, instilled from a bad experience as a child and that may be part of his distancing himself from Jamie. Together, these characters must try and find the new serial killer, and along with the local sheriff they unravel one clue after another. Brantley knows her subject matter very well and the research she did into the intricacies of cadaver dogs as well as Red Tide algae of the title, add fascinating details without slowing the story down.

The chase and the conclusion will have the reader riveted to the pages. Brantley also explores themes of otherwise strong women who remain with and make excuses for abusive men. Additionally, she delves into the psyche of serial killers in ways that are fresh to readers of the genre. There are very few weak spots in the story, which is promising in a debut author. This book will go a long way in introducing Brantley to readers as a force to be reckoned with in the thriller/mystery niche.

Peg Brantley is Colorado native and a prominent member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Sisters In Crime and the Crime Fiction Collective. Her and her husband live near Denver where they enjoy the animals that wander through their neck of the woods, including a bichon named McKenzie.

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About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.
  • Thank you for this wonderful review. The pressure is on for book two and I’m hoping not to let anyone down.