Fans of thrillers and mysteries know that small towns make great settings for novels. There are the requisite stock characters, the socially incestuous relationships and the confined geography with which to play. However, in the hands of a talented and imaginative genre writer, those themes and characters that can seem all too familiar take on a new perspective and a new life. In SECRETS TO THE GRAVE, the prolific and bestselling author Tami Hoag explores good and evil, dark secrets, and the power of families to both destroy and heal in such a small town.
The book takes place in Oak Knoll, California, the setting of Hoag's previous effort, DEEPER THAN THE DEAD. It starts a year after the events of that novel, which centered on a string of murders and attacks by the “See-No-Evil” killer. While the trial of that case is getting underway and while many of the characters here were introduced in the first book of this “microseries,” SECRETS TO THE GRAVE reads just as well as a stand-alone title as Hoag makes sure readers never feel lost or confused by references to earlier actions.
The story here begins, in the fall of 1986, with a gruesome discovery. The body of the young artist Marissa Fordham is found, mutilated almost beyond recognition in her Oak Knoll home. The body of her four-year-old daughter, Haley, is nestled against her shoulder with barely a heartbeat. Haley survives, and with emotions still running high from the recent murders and attacks by the See-No-Evil killer, Oak Knoll begins a hunt for a murderer once again. Sheriff's Detective Tony Mendez, along with his mentor and former FBI profiler, Vince Leone, lead the investigation as Leone's wife, Anne, takes care of the traumatized Haley, who is both a victim and the only witness to her mother's murder.
The details of the investigation are compelling. Who had the motive and opportunity to kill the much-adored, free-spirited Marissa? Was it a jilted lover? The unidentified father of her child? Her strange neighbor? Her temperamental benefactress? As Mendez, Leone and the other members of their team try to solve the case, their work becomes increasingly difficult: key figures in the investigation go missing, some refuse to come clean with what they know, threats are made against others…and finally they discover that Marissa never existed at all! Who was this mysterious woman in Oak Knoll, and what did she do to provoke such a brutal slaying?
Hoag's latest page-turner is grisly at times (between the details of the murder, the internal workings of a 12-year-old budding sociopath, the evasive games of the killer, and more) but remains totally readable and enjoyable throughout. She shifts point of view between characters with ease, and the pace never lags. Oak Knoll is a stand-in for the relative peace and security we all live in, as well as the fragility of that peace and security. Hoag nicely riffs on some of the expected "small town murder mystery" themes but also delivers plenty of the expected chills. The characters sometimes play to type, but much less so than in most genre writing.
SECRETS TO THE GRAVE is creepy and interesting with some fun twists and dark ideas. It is a complex thriller from one of the most intelligent and crafty suspense writers working today.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 4, 2011