Sunday, April 11, 2021

Book Review: Straight River (Matt Lanier Book 1) by Chris Norbury

An Amateur Sleuth with a Musical Ear Faces a Not-So-Subtle Conspiracy

The protagonist of this novel, Matt Lanier, is a musician. He’s always humming a tune or drawing parallels between his situation and the lyrics of a song. And when he’s reluctantly pressed into a murder/conspiracy investigation, he leverages this talent to find clues to the truth in the timber and tone of voice of the people he meets. That’s not an ability I’ve seen other amateur sleuths leverage and one of the reasons I enjoyed Straight River.

As you might imagine with a thriller, the songs that Matt finds apropos to his situation are ones like Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor—his circumstances are often bleak. Called back to his boyhood home after his father’s unexpected death, Matt soon suspects foul play. Then, later, he finds evidence of a multi-state (perhaps eventually, multi-nation) conspiracy to purchase vast tracks of farmland at below-market prices. Physical intimidation, even murder, are the tools of this criminal scheme and author Norbury keeps the reader guessing, presenting us with a long list of possible co-conspirators. The action is tense and well-paced, with the body count increasing steadily throughout the novel. But even so, there are pauses to enjoy the Minnesota countryside or to relive moments of Matt’s past. His still strong feelings for his ex-wife, in particular, provide a nice counterpoint to the action. And the ending, though a bit well-worn, felt appropriate to the plot.

The limitations of the book are primarily in the lack of subtly of the conspiracy and how/why that seemed to have little effect on the course of the tale. To start, the story is set in the 2008 Recession, so killing reluctant sellers seems a bit excessive given the overall financial state of the world. But even if we accept that premise as a literary given—to create tension—the number of deaths, near fatalities, and co-conspirators in one small Minnesotan county implies dozens, if not hundreds of incidents across multiple states. And facts that should have caused suspicion amid this killing spree are often ignored—things like suffocating in a silo when the grain isn’t being taken out from the bottom or a hanging that produces no bruising around the victim’s neck. And when a police sergeant asks the coroner about the latter evidence, she refuses to talk … but the sergeant still ignores the issue. A little more attention to aligning the investigation to the extent and nature of the crime would have increased the impact of the tale considerably.

Overall, expressive descriptions of setting and backstory add spice to a tense, well-paced thriller. Tightening up the plot would have let the action reach its full potential.

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