P. J. Parrish is two of the best mystery writers you will ever read. Parrish --- the collaborative name for sisters Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols --- owes me a night of sleep that I will never get back. I started their new novel late one evening and could not relinquish it until I read the final paragraph.
THE LITTLE DEATH is the latest installment in the award-winning Louis Kincaid series. Set in the late 1980s, when DNA testing was an extremely expensive forensic tool and cell phones were better known as “car phones” --- if they were known at all --- you have probably missed this fine series of novels if you limit yourself to purchasing hardcover books. Parrish is more than worth making the switch to paperbacks; this is a series of treasures worth breaking your rule.
Kincaid is an ex-cop turned private investigator after being summarily drummed off the force. Mel Landeta is his partner, another ex-law enforcement officer forced to leave due to rapidly deteriorating vision. THE LITTLE DEATH brings both men from their familiar environs in Fort Myers, Florida, to Palm Beach, across the state and a world away. Reggie Kent, an old acquaintance of Landeta’s, has been accused of murdering Mark Durand, a “walker” who escorted wealthy women in the city at social soirees. Durand was Kent’s protégé, sharing his home and possibly more.
When Durand’s headless body is found in an isolated area adjoining the Archer cattle ranch, Kent is the only suspect in whom Barberry, the local sheriff, is interested. Durand and Kent had a very public quarrel shortly before Durand was murdered, and evidence that appears to link Kent to the crime is found in the home that they shared. Kincaid and Landeta soon find themselves shoveling water uphill, as far as their investigation is concerned. They discover that Palm Beach is a place that holds its secrets dear and where appearance is to be preserved above all else.
But when a local matron chooses loyalty to her friend, Kent, over local custom, it provides a thread, however slender, for Kincaid and Landeta to pull in an attempt to unravel the case that is quickly wrapping around Kent. Aided by Starr, a Palm Beach cop with issues of his own, they uncover two similar, unsolved murders from the past that appear to have ties to the Archer Ranch. The men become convinced that a serial killer is operating in the area; the sheriff, however, is sure of Kent’s guilt, leaving it to Kincaid and Landeta to apply what pressure they can to learn the truth. In a dramatic, deadly conclusion where the truth is at long last revealed (at least to some), not all are left unscathed.
Although part of a series, THE LITTLE DEATH stands just fine on its own. There are a number of issues that remain unresolved at the end of the book, not the least of which is Kincaid and Landeta’s increasingly prickly relationship, Landeta’s vision problems, and Kincaid’s future vocational and romantic aspirations. There are also a couple of loose ends to the Palm Beach investigation that may or may not provide fodder for future novels. THE LITTLE DEATH is a great mystery that’s well plotted and superbly told. The best part, however, is the characterization. Both Kincaid and Landeta are wonderfully rough-edged, so it’s no wonder that low sparks occasionally fly between them; yet it is Kent who is riveting here. While he is not a common character by any means, everyone knows a Kent --- a man not entirely comfortable with himself who somehow finds a quiet niche that is all too easily disturbed.
Should Parrish so choose, Kincaid could find fertile and fascinating ground for a return trip to the area, his general distaste for it not withstanding. Future installments of the series will reveal if this occurs; in the meantime, we have THE LITTLE DEATH, which is not to be missed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 30, 2010