THE BONE HOUSE is an apparent momentary departure for Brian Freeman, given that it is the first of his books not to feature detectives Jonathan Stride and Serena Dial. There will be more about that "apparent" thing in a bit. For right now, let's talk about the merits of the novel, which are considerable indeed.
At the center of THE BONE HOUSE is a man named Mark Bradley, a former high school teacher who, by all indications, is a babe magnet. He is, however, avowedly faithful to his wife Hilary, who is no butterface herself and who returns Mark's faithfulness with an unflagging loyalty. And it is a good thing she does. Mark had lost his teaching position one year before, unofficially because of allegations that he had been romantically involved with Tresa Fischer, one of his students. Both Mark and Tresa vehemently denied the accusations, but the suspicions and hostility still simmer in their tightly knit community within Door County, Wisconsin.
Things become much worse for all concerned when Mark and Hilary attend a national school dance competition at a convention hotel on Florida's gulf coast. A young woman --- Gloria, Tresa's sister --- is found murdered on the beach there. Suspicion is immediately cast upon Mark; the whispering and the accusations have started even before he returns to Door County. One of the people who is most convinced that Mark is the murderer is Cab Bolton, the homicide detective assigned to the investigation. Tall, good-looking, independently wealthy, and fond of accessories that are a bit on the festive side, Bolton looks like anything but your stereotypical homicide detective, and he stands out in rural Door County.
Mark behaves too much like a suspicious and guilty man to suit Bolton, but as he pokes around, he slowly becomes convinced that Mark's guilt is not a sure thing after all. The local sheriff seems to be concealing information, particularly about the victim, who witnessed a horrific arson that took the lives of three people several years before. The convicted arsonist escaped from the sheriff's custody and is still at large. Bolton wonders if the man could have murdered Gloria in Florida. From all accounts, Gloria also had a motor that ran on fast idle at all times, a fact that often caused her boyfriend to be angry and jealous. Bolton puts him under suspicion as well.
The deeper Bolton gets into the investigation, the more he wonders if perhaps his original conclusion regarding Mark's culpability in the murder is incorrect. At the same time, Tresa is thinking if perhaps her faith in her husband, whom she feels in her heart is a good and decent man, might be a bit misplaced. Freeman begins to slowly sort things out about two-thirds of the way through the book, at the same time lobbing hand grenades into every conclusion you might have reached by that point. And he doesn't stop. There was one revelation that was so startling, and so perfect, that I had to read it over three times just to be sure I was interpreting things correctly. By the conclusion, you'll wish that it was twice as long. It's one of those books, one that is so good you hate to see it end.
THE BONE HOUSE is being marketed as Freeman's first "stand-alone" work, but I would be the first to lobby for more Cab Bolton, one of the more memorable detectives --- police, private, or otherwise --- whom I have recently encountered. And that's not taking anything away from Stride and Dial, either. If Freeman wants to start writing and publishing two separate series a year, there will be no complaints from this corner.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 24, 2011