Justice for Sara by Erica Spindler
Sometimes the idea and structure of the book hits a sweet spot and you just get sucked into the reading experience. In Justice for Sara by Erica Spindler (St Martin’s Press, 2013), we’re offered the story of Katherine McCall. She’s the stereotypical seventeen-year-old who thinks she’s in love with a slightly older man in the small town of Liberty, Louisiana. This leads to an argument with Sara, her older sister who acts as legal guardian after the death of their parents in a car crash. Needless to say, when Sarah is found beaten to death with a baseball bat, there’s quite strong circumstantial evidence that Kat was the killer. Fortunately, a good defence attorney is able to convince the jury of reasonable doubt and she’s acquitted. Unfortunately, what’s good enough for judge and jury is not going to convince the small town of her innocence. So she takes off and discovers she’s quite a talented baker. Ten years later, she’s become a modestly successful businesswoman.
During these ten years, there have been occasional anonymous letters but, on the anniversary of the murder, Kat receives a simple one-line question, “What about justice for Sarah?” This is enough to motivate a return to the town in search of the truth. We know this is not going to be without danger. The innocent sister is bound to lift up rocks to see what crawls out and, inevitably, the real killer will emerge. Because this is a romance and thriller, there’s immediate chemistry between Kat and Luke Tanner. This is both good and bad. Luke is the local police sergeant, but the son of the Chief who decided she was guilty and never seriously investigated the other potential suspects. To help her, Luke must therefore defy his father whose health is starting to fail — yes, there must always be barriers in the way of true love.
I make no apology for the rebuttable presumption I apply to books falling into the “romance” genre. As an old man, my cultural expectations are usually at odds with the female point of view on display. So I find it disheartening that female authors feel obliged to create plots in which their female protagonists do dangerously silly things and, more often than not, then have to be rescued by a man. It baffles me that women seem incapable of writing books in which women are sensible and can defend themselves if attacked. All the good work of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s has been consigned to the waste bin of history and patriarchy remains supreme. The daughters of women who threatened to throw off the shackles of oppression are now firmly back in the role of submissive dependence.
And this proves to be the case here. Kat is the proverbial loose canon, blundering around Liberty accusing people of having killed her sister. Needless to say, this leads to her being attacked and requiring rescue on a number of occasions. So, given my rebuttable presumption of awfulness, I should be walking away, shaking my head in disbelief that I’ve wasted yet another day reading junk. But this time my prejudice has been overcome by a really good plot and a pleasing structure — some of the characterisation is pretty good as well. This is a trail of breadcrumbs book in which we follow Kat from a suspicion, to an admission, to further questions, and so on. What looks at first sight to have been a simple murder proves very complicated to unravel because, during the ten intervening years, there have inevitably been changes in the town. Hence, we have alternating sequences. The main action is set in the present but, at strategic moments, we’re taken back to the murder to see what key people were actually doing before or after the death. This allows us a measure of how much people have or have not changed. More importantly, it shows us what secrets they keep and how these secrets might have been the cause of, or motive for, Sara’s murder. The answers that emerge are pleasingly elegant and the revelation of who wielded the baseball bat and why is nicely judged. However, this still leaves the question of who has been sending the anonymous letters which trigger Kat’s return. This proves a very clever element in the plot.
If we keep prejudices as to her lack of good judgement to one side, Kat shows the required determination to overcome not only the anticipated hostility of the town, but also the embarrassment of having to meet up with people who gave evidence against her in the trial. There’s also the problem of how much of the teen friendships will survive the passage of ten years. This leaves us with some pleasing other characters like the elderly next-door neighbor who’s now declining into dementia and quickly gets confused during any conversation, the go-get-em realtor, the Chief of police whose motives for the one-sided investigation slowly emerge as the book develops, and so on. Taken overall, this is one of the best romance tinged thrillers I’ve read for quite some time even though Kat must melt into Luke’s arms at the end. Justice For Sara is worth reading.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.