As teenagers, Justice and Dougie were best friends. That Dougie loved Justice was merely a fact that he tirelessly challenged Justice to accept. Justice spent the better part of thirty years deeply regretting that he never rose to the challenge, because Dougie was killed in a vehicular accident just moments after they had spent a bittersweet afternoon together at their favorite summer swimming hole. Justice is a police captain now, but he still hasn’t gotten over the death of his first love. He still visits Dougie’s grave, still takes him flowers and talks to his gravestone.
The only light in Justice’s life is the close friendship he has with Archie Wilkes, regardless of the fact that Archie is the child of one of the passengers in one of the vehicles involved in the crash that killed Dougie. Justice losing his greatest love and Archie losing his parents threw these two into each other’s orbits. Justice’s own sense of obligation and the it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child mentality thrusts Justice into a quasi-parental role where Archie is concerned. The caveat: Justice believes he’s more a father figure, but Archie has developed a decidedly more romantic attachment to Justice. For the past several years, Archie has tried to convince Justice he’s not just a kid and age is just a number. Justice, on the other hand, has been trying to convince himself he’s too old. The excuses get difficult to maintain when Justice realizes he’s not necessarily thinking of Dougie every time he visits Dougie’s grave…in point of fact, some of his fantasies about the life he could have shared with Dougie increasingly feature Archie instead.
All of this is put on hold when Archie’s aunt and closest living relative turns up dead. While her death is horrible, it is thought to be merely a freak accident. Things get suspect very fast, however, when her boyfriend also turns up dead. Suddenly, Justice and Archie’s sleepy town is thrust into the middle of a murder mystery and it’s running too close to Archie for Justice’s comfort. But can the Captain uncover the truth before disaster strikes a third time?
Before I get into the tangled emotional mess that is Justice Becker, I think the thriller element in this story works rather well. It kicks off with Archie reporting he was pushed (perhaps accidentally) into the path of an oncoming garbage truck. Justice begins looking into the event and finds a few details don’t add up. This is further compounded when various persons of interest go missing, end up dead, or ultimately reveal the extent of their criminal activities. While all the criminal activity is related, it didn’t seem obvious or contrived how all the pieces fit together. I especially enjoyed the way Connor and Mulder fit in key, small details that support the action. For example, notable players in the murders are referenced on-page several times and not exclusively in relation to the murders themselves. There is also a big tabloid news story that has a major impact on two of the characters. The news story appears early on, but it’s not until Justice himself unravels the MO of the murder that the importance of this tabloid is made clear.
Speaking of Justice, he is both our main character and the first-person narrator. I think it would behoove potential readers to understand that this story involves a lot of flashbacks and that Justice is something of an unreliable narrator.
Initially, I assumed this was going to be a pretty up front, linear story about Justice in the present and his struggle to either: 1) accept a relationship with the much younger Archie or 2) finally move on after Dougie and make a go with it with Ames. The more I read, however, the more I realized how much emphasis is placed on Justice’s past and particularly his memories of Dougie (as a teenager) and Archie (at various ages). These frequent trips to the past are clearly indicated on-page by italics; however, it wasn’t until the halfway point (or maybe a bit later) that I understood that these were not simply flashbacks for convenience’s sake. That is to say, some of these flashbacks were not real flashbacks, but fantasized flashbacks––Justice remembering actual events as he wishes they had unfolded. There was one memorable scene/flashback between Justice and Dougie swimming during a lightning storm; this same scene gets recreated as a flashback, but it’s between Justice and Archie instead. I wasn’t sure what to make of this repeated scene at first, wondering if maybe it was some sort of massive copy/paste or find/replace error. Eventually, the readers learns explicitly and from Justice himself that he is aware that his memories are not necessarily truthful.
Personally, I was a bit turned off by the frequency and length of all these flashbacks. It didn’t help that several of them feature the same contrived conversations between Dougie and Justice: Dougie tries to convince Justice to just give love a chance, and Justice agonizes over why he won’t do exactly that. Many of these scenes share the same physical setting as well—the river/swimming hole they frequented. There were times when it felt like the “in the present” timeline was just window dressing for the flashbacks. By way of example, I recall a scene were Archie is distraught over coming home to find his aunt dead and he convinces Justice to spend the night; Justice readily agrees to sit a vigil. As Justice sits in a chair watching Archie sleep, the bulk of the chapter is consumed with various flashbacks. I was annoyed by having to read literal pages of flashback when all I wanted to know was how the death of Archie’s aunt and the way Justice sort of caves to Archie’s request for company would play out in real time.
Arguably the “best” things about having all of Justice’s backstory mashed into the present timeline are: 1) it’s easy to understand why he’s screwed up when it comes to romantic relationships, and 2) it’s easy to sympathize with him regarding his feelings about being too old and too fatherly to try being romantic with Archie. That said, the constant switching back and forth and the way it seemed like the flashbacks sometimes took precedent over the actual in-the-present story dulled my desire to read the book. And to top it off with the fact that the flashback parts have been intentionally mis-represented (meaning there was no way for me to know how much of any given flashback was actually an accurate representation of what truly occurred)…well, it was simply off-putting.
Despite the (over?) ambitious method of crafting the story, the way Connor and Mulder wove the details of the murderers and the murders themselves into the text made for an exciting climax to the murder/thriller thread of the story. And as tiring as it was to read about how broken Justice is emotionally, the frequent flashbacks at least reinforce just how deeply he was affected by Dougie’s death and/or the way he hides behind that traumatic experience. Justice aside, I would sort of call this a cozy murder mystery. If you enjoy crime stories or think Justice sounds like an interesting character because of his flaws, you’d probably enjoy this story a lot.