Work has taken Sam O’Connor to Australia and his husband, Jake Finnigan, spends his days working for a ferry company in Washington State. Days before the six-month overseas assignment draws to a close, Jake can think of nothing but being reunited with his husband. That is, until a murdered woman is discovered in a vehicle abandoned on Jake’s ship. Bad enough the case bears an eerie resemblance to the murder of Jake’s best friend years ago, but when Jake learns the local law enforcement agency is going to sweep the case under the rug, he feels compelled to dig into the mystery.
Helping his case are his husband, who needs to make sure Jake doesn’t land himself in trouble with the law or with his disturbing past; his friend Rachel, a brilliant prosecutor working in DC; and his friend Alex, a man Sam never trusted and, as Jake learns, isn’t above keeping secrets. As the group pieces together a growing number of clues, they soon find themselves contending with people who just want the dead to stay buried. Jake might be on a mission to bring the woman’s killer to justice as a sort of penance for being unable to solve the murder of his best friend, but he just might be putting himself and everyone he loves in danger as well.
On the one hand, this is not an empirically “bad” book. It centers on the murder of a woman and follows a married couple as they try to uncover how it happened and who the murderer is. If you like straight-up murder mysteries, you might enjoy this book. The tone of the writing is perfectly adequate in tone, not pitched too high-brow or too low. A series of events and meetings with parties associated to the deceased gives the readers some clues, so you have a chance at following along. There are action scenes, including a car chase down a winding mountain road and a kidnapping. In that sense, it’s just your average murder mystery.
On the other hand, this book has what I believe is a execrable flaw: a superabundance of things that matter that happen entirely off-page. To explain the extent of this err, let me inform you that at about the 60-page mark, I convinced myself I simply must have inadvertently picked up a book smack in the middle of the a series. I kept reading, berating myself for not doing my homework and at least googling the events in the earlier books (you know, so I could figure things the fuck out!). At about the 180-page mark, there were just too many references to significant past events. I had to put my fingers in the internet and lo! This is the author’s first shot outta the gates–read: there IS nothing before this book.
To put a slightly finer point on this phenomenon:
1. A woman with zero direct connection to anyone in the book gets murdered.
2. Jake and Sam decide to moonlight as investigators to catch the murderer ad nauseam.
1. Jake’s best friend gets murdered back in high school. This episode from Jake’s past DRIVES the whole story. Without this, Jake wouldn’t even be trying to solve the woman’s murder.
2. Gavin and Jeff, who they are and why the matter. These men’s names get dropped several times. It made me feel like the author was alluding to some grand romance in some other book about Gavin and Jeff and the name dropping is supposed to remind me of them. Final Departure, however, is the first book in what is supposed to become a series and Amazon lists no other books by this author–so there’s presumably nothing I’m missing except head-cannon.
3. How Jake and Sam met/befriended Alex and why Jake’s platonically devoted to the man, but Sam probably wouldn’t pee on Alex if he were on fire. Okay, Sam’d probably pee on the guy, but he’d have to be convinced. Alex and Rachel are the only two other characters we experience via third person omniscient POV. To me, this indicates Alex is a major player. Unfortunately, none of his history with Jake or Sam gets explained and the author wraps the poor character up in so much broody mystery, his passages were more tiresome than intriguing.
4. Rachel’s friendship with Jake and Sam. Like Alex, we spend a bit of time with this character. The way Jake and Sam talk with her sounds like a long-winded conversation of inside jokes, which I didn’t enjoy. I already felt like an outsider reading about these people but not experiencing anything meaningful with them. So they like to chat and based on that, we’re expected to buy that she’s their best friend ever. Plus, she introduces herself once as “Rachel Finnigan” as though she’s Jake Finnigan’s sister, but neither Jake nor Sam and not even the narrator identifies her as a sister.
5. Jake and Sam’s entire romance. If you like hot, sexy books, this one fails to deliver. There are about three kisses and one goosing; all the other sexual antics happen off-page. What irritates me about their romance is that it comes across more like roommates than lovers. They’re so agreeable and on the same wavelength about all their plans. Part of that could probably be chalked up to point 7 on the list, but still…a few more fireworks between the characters would have been much appreciated. There was a burst of actual emotion in the last dozen or so pages, but it was far too little too late for my tastes.
6. Jake’s brother randomly showing up after being estranged (?!) for a decade. Because apparently Gavin, Jeff, Alex, and Rachel weren’t enough company for Jake and Sam? The man had been dating a homophobic manipulator who said some unsavory things to Jake/Sam and the brother apparently just went with it…insta-rift. Except that’s all just info-dumped at the reader, rendering his reappearance pretty bloodless in my opinion.
7. Whatever happened in Sam’s past to make it a “dark” past. Final Departure already has a character with a tortured past–that would be Jake with the best friend whose murder went unsolved. When a book has two dark-past-characters, I like to get sucked into the drama associated of overcoming (or succumbing) to the issues that make each character’s past dark. Pickens focuses entirely on the murdered stranger, though, so this dark past of Sam’s feels like it’s just kind of thrown out there like “Hey! Sam’s interesting, too!” Not very rewarding to be halfway through a book and someone cavalierly mentions Sam’s abusive parent when nothing before or after really substantiated that fact.
8. What process led to Sam going to work in Australia for six months while Jake stayed in Washington state. This is another one of those things that I read and thought “Crap, I picked up a book in the middle of the series.” It wasn’t made clear from the get-go that Sam goes to Australia so he and his husband can be financially set for life. That left me, the poor reader, vacillating between wild theories like maybe they had an epically huge fight and Sam couldn’t even share a continent with Jake. Or maybe they were only apart because Jake’s boat job took him away from home for months at a time and Jake would be going HOME to Australia? Nothing in the narration/interactions with other characters really spelled it out; the reader has to slog through the first few chapters to get a clear picture about what’s even going on.
9. Befriending a homeless man living on an abandoned boat and who Jake/Sam find dead near the man’s home. Since this poor man had no bearing on the murder aspect of this story, it’s just another off-page adventure we didn’t get to go on.
I can’t help but rate this story low because I felt so disconnected with the characters to the point where I didn’t care about the stupid murder. The red herring didn’t help and just raised even MORE points that mean something off-page, but we never learn what came of them. Plus, the red herring is revealed as such far earlier than I think it ought to have been. By the time the murderer was revealed (yet another character that has zero connection to the myriad characters Pickens packs into the story), I was just relieved to have it be over and done with. Unlike some mysteries, the big reveal didn’t send light up my neurons with thoughts of “I should have seen that coming!” or “I see what you did there!” That was the most disappointing on-page aspect of the book: I didn’t care about the resolution.
Like I said, if you enjoy books purely for the puzzle aspect, you might find this book enjoyable. Just be forewarned the characters are more complex than you’ll (very literally) know and copious quantities of the human drama is relegated off-page.