THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is Brad Parks’ third and best Carter Ross mystery. Carter Ross is an investigative reporter for the Newark Eagle-Examiner, which is slowly circling the drain. Carter is a likable enough guy, upright in a Boy Scout manner, shot through with a sense of humor, decent morals, and a sense of honor. So it is that when a delivery person for the paper is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while on the job, Carter thinks that she deserves a bit more than an obituary column. And when he begins gathering information for his feature article, he learns that the carrier --- a woman named Nancy Marino --- might be more than a victim of an accident. The deeper he digs, the more he discovers that leads him to believe she was murdered.
"This is a character-driven novel, and Carter, who tells the tale in the first person, is a likable and funny guy. What really makes the book worth reading, though, is Park’s storytelling style, which is engaging and propelling."
Carter finds out that Nancy was one of those quiet people whose greatest fame was achieved in her death but who keeps the world turning. Nancy worked two jobs, owned her own home, and took care of her mother, eschewing a social life, marriage and children while doing so. He also learns that she was a polite but firm union representative who was staying the course during contentious negotiations with the publisher of the Eagle-Examiner. A word about that publisher. Gary Jackman, who Carter describes as not-so-esteemed, among other things, is less than popular in the newsroom, given the personnel amputations that he has initiated in his efforts to keep the paper functioning. Carter’s investigation uncovers some understandable friction in negotiations between Jackman and Nancy. And when Carter learns that Jackman actually threatened Nancy with physical harm, he is all but certain that he has discovered her killer.
This puts him on a collision course with Tina Thompson, Carter’s in-your-face editor and would-be girlfriend. Even worse, it puts him in the sights of the killer, who seems bent on doing to him what he did to Nancy. Carter gets help from Tommy, a fellow reporter whose give-and-take repartee with him conceals a genuine friendship, and receives some unlikely assistance from an Eagle-Examiner intern whose nickname implies a somewhat subordinate intelligence, when in fact the gent is probably the smartest man in the room.
Carter soon finds that not only his life but also his job (his order of priority) are in jeopardy, so he does what every intrepid reporter does: he doubles down and quickly finds himself at the wrong end of a gun. Will Carter leave this mortal coil even sooner than the Eagle-Examiner? Is this the final volume of a trilogy? Or are Carter’s exploits just beginning? You’ll have to read the book to find out, but regardless of the answer, you won’t be sorry.
One note: all you mystery aficionados will probably guess the identity of “the girl next door” well before story’s end, but you won’t care. This is a character-driven novel, and Carter, who tells the tale in the first person, is a likable and funny guy. What really makes the book worth reading, though, is Park’s storytelling style, which is engaging and propelling. His printed tour of North Jersey is first-rate, and his description of a Jersey diner is so spot-on that you can practically smell the food wafting up from between the pages. Let’s hope for another book from this author sooner rather than later.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 17, 2012