Meg Gardiner’s latest is her first standalone novel. Fans of her Jo Beckett and Evan Delaney series needn’t worry; RANSOM RIVER is the author’s most inventive and emotionally involving thriller to date.
Nothing much happens in Ransom River, the (fictional) northern suburb of Los Angeles County. That’s why Rory Mackenzie grabbed the opportunity to work for an international charity organization and leave behind not only the place, but a life full of professional and personal regrets. But when the charity’s funding fell through, Rory found herself back in Ransom River, with a summons to jury duty waiting for her.
Rory is assigned as a juror on a local, high-profile murder case. Just as the proceedings begin, the courtroom is attacked by masked gunmen. In the wake of the outburst, Rory, aided by Seth Colder — a childhood friend and past lover, in addition to a former police officer — discovers the courthouse attack’s link to a notorious, unsolved crime in the town’s past. As events unfold, she learns the deeply hidden secrets of the crime, her family and what she really left behind in Ransom River.
Right from the start, Gardiner craftily plays against our expectations. We may think we know what the narrative’s central conflict is, only to discover that — as intense as those moments are — the real conflict is what happens afterward. By then, we are so involved with Rory and the internal suspense that we can’t help but continue to move forward with her.
Events from the past are critical to understanding the plot, and Gardiner interweaves these flashbacks and memories both in chapters subtitled “Then,” as well as fleeting moments recalled in the present. She wisely spends just enough time in presenting this essential information and avoids the risk or confusing or losing the reading in potentially complex recollections.
Her characterizations are at their finest in this novel, driving home the underlining theme of family loyalties and deceptions. We first suspect, as Rory does, that her various aunts, uncles and cousins want to take advantage of her sudden celebrity status in the wake of the courtroom attack. Later, however, we see that their motive, as well as that of Rory’s own parents, is far more sinister.
Effective also is Gardiner’s straight-ahead prose style with its various and easily recognizable metaphors as she details her characters’ actions, emotions and the credible setting of Ransom River itself. When the suspense is wrung tightest, and there seems to be no way out, we feel Rory’s suffocation and utter helplessness.
RANSOM RIVER proves that, as wonderful and reliable as her series stars are, Gardiner is no slave to either of them; she’s perfectly capable of creating believable characters and situations completely from scratch.
This comes highly recommended to all thriller fans, or those who simply admire a extremely suspenseful, well-told story. No wonder such popular fiction luminaries as Stephen King and Jeffery Deaver continue to sing Gardiner’s praises. If you haven’t joined the choir yet, RANSOM RIVER is a great place to start. —Alan Cranis