Ridley Pearson baits readers with Blaine County Sheriff Walt Fleming’s feeling of dread --- and near misses. “He’d had her within arm’s reach,” but the sinister woman he recognizes from the video of the abduction/murder of the man transporting priceless wine is a “professional.” Are Pearson’s clues red herrings, or are they easy-to-find puzzle pieces forming a picture border? Not everything is as it appears to be. Could a seemingly innocent teen girl be the title killer? A few million dollars for three bottles of wine is nothing compared to something of real value. With any Pearson masterpiece, subplots warrant being a novel unto themselves. The evil and cunning Christopher Cantell keeps popping up like a cork attached to Fleming’s fly fishing line. Cantell is involved in the wine heist, and a grander scheme that makes KILLER SUMMER a sure-fire bestseller.
Like Pearson’s red-hot writing, this summer will be a killer --- with the life of Fleming’s nephew Kevin hanging in the balance. His thriller recipe incorporates psychological motivation to make characters believable and the psychotic aberrations appalling.
The ever-observant Fleming notices a car being towed out of town --- with the driver, Randall Everest Malone of a private security firm, slumped over the wheel. A super-secret attaché case is handcuffed to the passenger seat frame, and he dies before Fleming can ask questions. It seems fitting that a protagonist based on a real-life person (Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling) is as real and likable as Sheriff Walt Fleming. Fleming’s “ad hoc crime-scene crew [includes] local news photographer and part-time deputy Fiona Kenshaw,” an endearing repeat character in the Killer series. Fiona is the queen of multitasking, a quasi-psychologist for Fleming and a sympathetic sounding board with cool logic.
And perhaps a romantic interest. In the throes of divorce, Fleming “tried to see her...only as a professional --- a part-time crime-scene photographer, an associate --- but failed miserably.” Fiona seems to know what sinister thing is about to happen, a scary sixth sense, and doesn’t take flack from Fleming.
Sun Valley hosts a summer wine auction, and a trio of priceless wines in the mysterious attaché case attract über-wealthy connoisseurs from around the world. Pearson throws readers into the deep end, with international intrigue, murder and kidnapping --- all for “three dark green bottles of wine.” The wine is reputed to have been a gift from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams. (A precursor to the 2000 presidential election, in 1800, votes were so close to those of the incumbent Adams that the House of Representatives had to decide that Jefferson would be president. Jefferson had lost the election to Adams in 1796. Would Al Gore have accepted wine as a parting gift from George W. Bush?)
PhD candidate Janet Finch staunchly contends that the wine trio is fake, an attempt to bilk big bucks from those in Sun Valley who may not notice a few percent of their invested billions to be bogus. Janet tells Fleming that wine promoter Arthur Remy is “going to make off with a zillion dollars for some Rothschild bottled as something quite different.” Janet suspects that the murder at an Amsterdam brothel of one who authenticated the wine bottles was to cover up test results. The expert, Dr. Weisling, “was gay. He didn’t even belong in a brothel.” Janet tells Fleming this at the house where she stays during the auction, just after Fleming chases off a prowler wearing heavy ski gloves --- in July!
Janet later confronts Remy with the truth: “Dr. Weisling was not stabbed to death by a madman. He was stabbed to death because his microfracture research uncovered your bottles as fakes. Either you knew that going in or it was too late to stop what you’d started, but either way your reputation is on the line.” The wine bottles surreptitiously wind up in the custody of Fleming, who allows Janet to examine them --- and understandably asks her to speak English when she says, “I’d rather have a spectrometer...the piezoelectric effect is just as conclusive. We can measure density, size, clamped capacitance, and low-field dissipation.”
Seventeen-year-old Kevin asks Uncle Walt, “How come it’s always got to be something? You and me, this family, one crisis after another. What’s with that?” Fleming steps in as a father figure after his brother dies. Kevin suspects his father’s death was suicide and Fleming compromised integrity by having it reported as “accidental.” Fleming has precious little time to share with his own twin daughters, while gut-tightening thoughts of a messy divorce loom. Deputy Tommy Brandon makes a repeat appearance, still romantically linked to Fleming’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Gail --- and again Fleming entrusts his life to Brandon. What a guy!
Young Summer Sumner is the daughter of Teddy Sumner --- “one-hit wonder [with] Mastermind” --- a film producer who squanders his dead wife’s fortune with a private Learjet, but “saves” money by not having a flight attendant on the trip from Los Angeles to Sun Valley for the wine auction. She seeks out a local teen her age, preferably a hotel staffer, but for what purpose? Her mark is Kevin, who finagled a position at the posh hotel (“better than a fry cook”) where the Sumners stay during the auction.
Summer broods over having to come to Sun Valley in a private Learjet, causing her to scheme a devious plot. “Only her father’s combativeness and certitude drove her on. If he hadn’t dragged her along on this trip, she wouldn’t be in a position of stripping naked in front of a virtual stranger. Kevin was looking right at her. His state of arousal was apparent from across the steaming pool.” Summer smirks that her deceased mother would have been proud of her conniving nature.
Poor-Little-Rich-Girl throws the ultimate tantrum to prove that she can be independent. With stolen jet key in hand, Summer lures Kevin into taking her to her father’s big-boy-toy Learjet, though an airport shuttle is available. She takes luggage with her, and Kevin suspects he’s being used --- and he will be the one seen driving her. Dilemma: choose between a hot, rich chick fawning over a male teen, or do the right thing.
Though a sexual fire burns within, Kevin knows how to extinguish certain types of incendiary incidents. He has seen enough action flicks to know what’s what. When in a pickle, Kevin recalls what he had been told: “everything happens for a reason.” Kevin had “dismissed the platitude at the time the same way he dismissed anything an adult said.” He now uses that advice in a clever plan to escape certain death, and then offers himself as the ultimate sacrifice.
Intrigue, suspense, murder and kidnapping portrayed with frightening realism make KILLER SUMMER a thriller sure to be adapted for a blockbuster movie. With an impeccable plot and rich text, Pearson has readers holding on to this cliffhanger with fingertips as strong and manicured as his poetic prose. He leaves subtle clues, and then, like freezing water in a shower, shocks the reader with how obvious the circumstances are that lead to a killer conclusion.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy on January 18, 2011