Stillwater by Melissa Lenhardt

County of Offenses

Stillwater County

Character Charges

Murder, murder a long time ago, assaulting a police officer, official corruption, bribery, crimes of the heart, others

Known Gang Affiliations

Skyhorse Publishing

Date of Offense

October, 2015

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell 

Former FBI agent Jack McBride is starting over in small town Texas, transitioning from the hyper competitive (and prestigious) world of federal policing to the Chief of Police in Stillwater, Texas. Stillwater, Texas is fictional--though there is a Stillwater, Oklahoma.

The book starts out with a crime scene—the double homicide of young and poor Hispanic couple in a rundown trailer. The opening was tense because Jack is practically still fresh off the freeway when the crime occurs, so he’s both introducing himself and trying to muddle through the process of what is a very rare crime in such a town.

This crime is a very big deal in Stillwater, and Jack makes a rookie mistake amidst all the chaos. This results in a suspect escape and embarrassing beating; this in a small town in which somebody getting a new truck or being rude to someone at the grocery store is enough to fuel gossip for weeks. As it turns out, Jack would give Stillwater a lot to talk about as the book unfolds.

The legacy of his predecessor, former police chief Buck Pollard, still hangs over the town like a thunderhead. Buck was corrupt; and what’s worse he shared the wealth—skewing the landscape of intentions among those within the police department and community. Ethan, Jack’s teenage son, is reacting about how most kids would react being shipped off to small town Texas. And Jack’s marital status is as uncertain as a Texas weather forecast; his wife just up and leaving him and the kids one day almost a year ago.

Jack also soon finds himself embroiled in a second case—the mystery of a found skeleton. But most gossip-worthy of all is the immediate attraction Jack feels with local Ellie Martin. Ellie has baggage of her own, as most people do in middle age, and Jack’s unusual circumstances don’t make the prospective relationship easy. As the book unfolds, Lenhardt delivers a compelling and satisfying mystery that lays the groundwork for a strong series.

The market agrees, too. This book has 3.67 stars on Goodreads via a whopping 881 reviews, and a four-star rating on Amazon with 180 reviews; that’s a lot of validation. This was the first book of hers I’ve read, and I was surprised to hear it was her debut work. Lenhardt writes with depth and realism, and knows how to engineer intrigue. I think it’s fascinating that Lenhardt originally started this work as a faithful retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. But then she morphed it into a mystery during NaNoWriMo one year (Ellie’s character is still true to its origin).

When I bought this book at Houston’s Murder by the Book, I looked at the cover and said “hey that looks just like Stillwater.” But there is no Stillwater, Texas. I was actually thinking of Sweetwater, and the cover photo does look a bit like that to me. And as I read on, that feeling of being tricked into the reality of Lenhardt’s Stillwater and its characters kept on.

Since Stillwater, fellow Red Raider Lenhardt has absolutely blown up. Not only has she written another Jack McBride mystery, but she’s also written a very well received trilogy of post-Civil War novels as well as feminist Western Heresy and an upcoming love story called Love & Other Disasters (great title).

Verdict: Guilty of creating a compelling small-town mystery with a realistic setting, a tense romance, a layered story and plenty of Texas-sized suspense.

 
 

Melissa Lenhardt speaks to her “Feminist Western” Sawbones trilogy set in the 1870s, at the Abilene public library.

 

This novel has absolutely nothing to do with Sweetwater. But I still couldn’t get the idea of Sweetwater out of my head.

 

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